The Old-New Czech President

On the last weekend of January – and with a record-high turnout of 66% of 8,363,000 registered voters – Czechs chose the man who will be President of the Czech Republic for the next five years.

Miloš Zeman received 51.36% of the vote in the second round (2,853,400 voters, which is 136,000 votes more than he got in 2013) and 38.56% in the first. Jiří Drahoš received 48.63% (2,701,200 voters) in the second round and 26.60% in the first. Zeman won in 10 of 14 regions, with the best result in the Moravian-Silesian Region – 62.32%. Drahoš won in 4 regions and was the highest scoring candidate in Prague – 68.75%. Drahoš came out on top in 5 out of 6 cities with populations of over 100,000.

A total of 9 candidates (including the incumbent President Zeman) were nominated for the elections, a majority of them declaring their adversity to Zeman from the very beginning and openly endorsing Drahoš in the second round.

Miloš Zeman, born in 1944, is an economist and forecaster who has been engaged in politics since 1990, having built the Czech Social-Democratic Party (ČSSD) in the 1990s from scratch and serving as the country’s prime minister in 1998-2002. (Before the 1989 revolution he belonged to intellectual dissident circles and had been a member of the Communist Party during the Prague Spring of 1968.)

Jiří Drahoš, born in 1949, is a chemist and scientist who has spent his entire career in the field of scientific research. From 2009 to 2017 he served as Chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He did not affiliate with a political party nor engage in any kind of politics with the exception of participating in the public debate over state support of academic science.

The election campaign

The election campaign kicked off to a gradual start in the first half of 2017. New regulations were applied, mainly having to do with electoral financing (maximum spending limits, use of transparent accounts, and the disclosure of campaign donors).

An informal ‘Anti-Zeman’ bloc was quickly formed by four very active candidates. It focused primarily on criticism of President Zeman’s policies and activities rather than the country’s future prospects. Zeman refused to participate in joint pre-election events, nor did he seem to run any significantly visible campaign himself. Parliamentary elections took place shortly before the official launch of the presidential election campaign. However, none of the parties in parliament nominated their presidential candidates. The three candidates (including Zeman) got on the ballot by collecting the required number of citizens’ signatures (the minimum was 100,000 verified signatures), the remaining candidates’ nominations resulting from endorsements by the appropriate number of MPs or senators.

The major issues of the electoral campaign (apart from constant criticism of the incumbent) involved foreign policy (mostly criticism of Zeman’s friendliness towards the Russian Federation and China) and European integration, with almost all of the candidates sharing a pro-European stance. Zeman, for his part, kept making the point that during his term as prime minister the Czech Republic joined NATO and completed its EU accession. He justified his closeness to Russia and China by the need to promote Czech economic interests, for which reason he also criticises the EU’s sanctions policy towards Russia. Other key topics were migration and quotas as well as security in Europe. Here all candidates were very cautious because of the prevailing critical mood among most of the population. No domestic problems were prioritised. Here too the main focus was criticism of Zeman’s alleged polarisation of Czech society and his hostility to mainstream media. Drahoš tried to inject the idea of an alleged attempt of the ‘Kremlin’ (that is, Russia-affiliated propaganda and disinformation circles) to influence the elections. But no one, including the Czech secret services, has taken this seriously and the issue has died down.

The real political clash took place between the first and second rounds. Finally, Zeman personally campaigned, participating in four TV debates, two of them face-to-face with Drahoš. In both Zeman was able to beat his rival. If at the beginning of the two weeks between rounds numerous surveys showed a slight lead for Drahoš the last predictions had the two candidates running neck and neck.

Initial conclusions

  • The idea of a right/left political competition was almost non-existent. Still, the majority of left-oriented people voted for Zeman. According to the sociological surveys 80-90% of those who voted for the KSČM and Tomio Okamura’s SPD Movement in the parliamentary elections voted for Zeman. For supporters of the Social Democrats this percentage is rather unclear. Those who had previously supported left parties and recently voted for the ANO movement primarily voted for Zeman. Czech right-wing politicians publicly stood for Drahoš, along with a great many artists and intellectuals, and in this they were followed by traditional right-wing voters. The Pirate Party did not make an official endorsement, but most of its leaders declared their support for Drahoš. Younger and relatively better educated people had greater preference for Drahoš. On the other hand, Zeman won decisively in municipalities with high unemployment (8% or more), garnering ca. 66.8% of the vote there. Urban or rural habitation was one of the key factors in the vote: Zeman scored well in villages and small and middle-sized towns.
  • It appears that a significant section of Czech society increasingly feels it is not being treated fairly. The electoral debacle of the Czech Social Democrats and Communists in the parliamentary elections of 2017 may have led a number of these leftist voters to see Zeman as the last remaining safeguard against neoliberal right-wing supremacy. And this despite the general perception that Zeman cannot be suspected of having substantial left ideas, for example, in the social sphere.
  • Although various media repeatedly complained that the elections – or Zeman himself – are splitting Czech society, the truth is that it has been severely divided for quite some time now; it is just that the split has become more open. The division is not of a right/left political sort but one between those who are benefitting, or expect to benefit, from neoliberal global capitalism and those who are negatively affected by it or at least have a sense of not being fairly remunerated for their contributions to society and of not being given their fair share of wealth. The population of Prague – one of the ten richest regions of the EU in terms of GDP per capita – generally shares neoliberal Europe’s dominant concepts of economic and political organisation. In part this is also true for another two or three large Czech cities – Brno and Liberec – but definitely not for Ostrava, which has faced many problems and was won by Zeman.
  • The outcome of the presidential election will have a direct and indirect impact on the process of forming the Czech government, though no one can now guess exactly what that impact will be. For now, Zeman keeps declaring his fundamental objection to a rerun of the parliamentary elections and is pushing the appointed provisional Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the leader of ANO, to undertake constructive negotiations with other parliamentary parties to build a stable majority government with their support. He will undoubtedly continue to play an active role in Czech foreign policy. Despite portraying himself as a euro-federalist his policies vis-à-vis Brussels will continue to lean heavily in favour of narrow Czech national interests. In Drahoš, the EU Commission would probably have found a more amenable counterpart. Zeman is known to be a staunch supporter of Israel instead of a more balanced Israeli-Palestinian policy for the Czech government and the EU.
  • The Czech radical and moderate left (KSČM, ČSSD) has not nominated their own candidates. The KSČM justified this as a way of avoiding the risk of splitting potential left voters and thus letting two right-wing and anti-communist candidates make it to the second round. But there was also some doubt that the radical left would be able to find a candidate able to secure a result of close to 10%. For many left-wing voters Zeman with his liberal left positioning was definitively a more acceptable choice than the opaque Drahoš who is known for his distance towards the left, especially the radical left, and about whose personal attitudes on many key issues there were great doubts.
  • The parliamentary and presidential electoral campaigns of 2017 have in general deepened the public’s mistrust of the mass media, with internet space becoming a major battlefield between positions and movements. Alas the vast majority of radical left subjects were very passive in this area and failed to make left-wing ideas and proposed solutions visible. Overall, neoliberal democracy’s loss of legitimacy seems to have been further exacerbated. And it appears to have led a substantial number of citizens to seek some certainty in electing a strong political leader promising to be in a position to defend and protect them.
  • The result of the presidential elections does not bode well for the radical left as it prepares for upcoming electoral events such as the European Parliament elections. Nor is it promising in view of the need to relaunch radical left-wing politics to at least regain something like the 15% support it had in the first decade of this century.