Czech Presidential Elections: Audition for a Challenger

Petr Kaniok |

Czechia 1The Czech Republic is a state whose political system is heavily based upon parliamentary power with government as the main executive body. This tradition, which was firmly set up after the Velvet revolution in 1989, for a long time implied an indirectly elected president with purely symbolic powers. In this way, Václav Havel was twice elected as president, just like his successor Václav Klaus.

However, when Klaus´s second election in 2008 was surrounded by scandals and rumours that some MPs’ votes had been bought, the major political parties discovered in 2012 that the president could also be directly elected by the people. As a result, the system was changed and in 2013, the Czech voters chose their president directly for the first time. Unfortunately, without any changes in the political system, since the presidential competences and powers remained untouched.

Miloš Zeman, the first directly chosen inhabitant of the Prague castle – and one of the most talented ‘power technologist’ in modern Czech history – used his position to go frequently and extensively beyond his formal powers. A couple of months after he became the president, he circumvented the Chamber of Deputies and appointed a government which comfortably ruled almost one year without having parliamentary confidence.

Mr. Zeman also pursued his own foreign policy, much more focusing on the East (Russia and China) than the official governmental position would have been. He and his closest fellows – chancellor Mr. Mynář, advisor Mr. Nejedlý (and, last but not least, spokesperson Mr. Ovčáček) managed to transform the presidential office into an influential and visible actor of the Czech politics. This became even more obvious recently after the last Czech parliamentary elections in October 2017 when Mr. Zeman appointed Mr. Babiš as a prime minister – and enabled him to compose new government – even though Mr. Babiš did not have a chance to obtain parliamentary support.

Mr. Zeman’s controversial style and decisions quite quickly divided the whole society. Whereas some social groups (particularly those of lower socio-economic status) have welcomed both his behaviour – which can be summed up in the word ‘proletarian’ – and concrete actions, other parts of society have firmly rejected it. This division – the latter groups can be found among the more educated voters living in urban areas – has become a stable factor in both Czech political life and discourse. And when Mr. Zeman announced in March 2017 that he would seek re-election in 2018, an ‘audition for a challenger’ started.

Zeman and Drahos

The incumbent (left) and the challenger (right).

Particularly during the second half of 2017, candidates for the presidency slowly started to emerge. As the most promising challenger of Mr. Zeman appeared Jiří Drahoš, a 68-year-old physical chemist and former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences. His profile perfectly met the expectations of the second half of Czech society – the ‘anti-Zeman’ part – for the presidential office: non-partisan, pro-European, professionally recognised, and cultivated. However, Mr. Drahoš was not the only one demonstrating these characteristics. The race was joined by the similarly profiled Michal Horáček, inter alia former owner of the betting company Fortuna, who was actively involved in the Velvet revolution in 1989, or Pavel Fischer, a former diplomat and collaborator of Václav Havel. In the latest stage, Mirek Topolánek, the former Czech prime minister who was responsible for the 2009 EU Council Presidency, also submitted a bid. Altogether, there were 9 candidates (including Mr. Zeman) who entered the campaign.

The campaign, at least in its supposedly ‘hot’ phase, was boring. This was due to two major reasons. First, Mr. Zeman officially did not run any campaign. He refused to take part in TV debates and made just a few public appearances. Still, the whole country was plastered by billboards with his photo and slogan ‘Miloš Zeman again!’ This PR line was mostly funded by a group called ‘Miloš Zeman friends’ whose background remains unclear. This, again, led to speculations about possible Russian influence and interest in favouring Mr. Zeman´s re-election. Second, most of the remaining 8 candidates expressed very similar opinions and rather than competing among themselves, they defined themselves against the non-present Mr. Zeman.

The first round of the elections took place on Friday 13 and Saturday 14 January. Voting was marked by a politically motivated attack on Mr. Zeman. When he voted on Friday, he was accosted by a topless woman shouting, ‘Zeman: Putin’s slut’, a reference to the Czech president’s close ties with his Russian counterpart. It was revealed that this woman was involved in the activist movement FEMEN.

Table 1st round PresThe results of the first round, with an attendance rate of 61,92% of eligible voters – brought some surprise. While the victory of Mr. Zeman was expectable, a bigger share of the votes – definitely above 40% – had been predicted. Even the distance between him and the winner of the ‘challenger contest’ – in this case Mr. Drahoš – had been expected to be larger. However, this was not the case. Mr. Drahoš managed to beat the rest of the peloton convincingly. What is probably more important, he immediately secured support from Mr. Fischer, Mr. Horáček and Mr. Hilšer – the latter being probably the biggest surprise in terms of votes gained – for the second round. If all those who supported these candidates come to the second round – which is scheduled for the last weekend of January (29 – 30), he will have a good chance of unseating Mr. Zeman.

On the other hand, Mr. Drahoš may expect some tough final campaign days. Mr. Zeman is not a politician who gives up and his experience is levels above Mr. Drahoš. At his first win 2013, Mr. Zeman received only 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2013 election but more than doubled his share in the second round after running what was widely seen as a smear campaign against his opponent. As Mr. Zeman´s and his fellows’ stakes are high, this scenario may well repeat itself…