The post of Czech President will now be held for the next five years by Miloš Zeman. The incumbent, who is famous for a political style that is so jovial as to be vulgar and for his pro-Russian, harshly anti-immigration position, defeated the moderate, unequivocally pro-Western academic Jiří Drahoš in the second round of voting by a relatively close margin (152 000 votes).
Reactions from around the world were very telling. While Germany and France, as well as Brussels, took their time to congratulate Zeman in a rather formal tone, on the other side of the geopolitical spectrum there was enthusiasm. Congratulations arrived from Russia and China almost immediately. Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote to Zeman that this is an opportunity to raise the strategic partnership between the Czech Republic and China to a whole new level. Vladimir Putin wrote in his telegram that Miloš Zeman is an “experienced, responsible politician who advocates for the interests and desires of the Czech nation” and that he “believes that collaboration with Zeman will continue”. What is already the most eurosceptic country in the EU has again turned eastward with the re-election of 74-year-old Miloš Zeman, both mentally and in the geopolitical sense.
The presidential elections have also confirmed the disunity that exists in Czech society. While nine candidates entered the electoral contest during the first round, the election was generally considered a referendum about Miloš Zeman, his values and stances. The academic Jiří Drahoš, who stood against the incumbent in the second round, did not make it to that final contest because the “anti-Zeman” part of society considered him the best possible candidate. He appeared to be the consensus candidate with the greatest chance of defeating Zeman. Drahoš was primarily the most promising “anti-Zeman”, but it was ultimately revealed that the “pro-Zeman” part of Czech society holds a close lead.
Of course, it is not possible to say that the main reason for Zeman’s success was that most Czechs want to abandon the Western Hemisphere, exit the European Union, and lean towards Russia. Some of his voters may absolutely clearly desire that (for example, voters from the Communist Party or the extremist, anti-immigration, pro-Russian SPD party, both of whom explicitly supported Zeman), but that is far from the key motivation for all who gave him their vote. After all, exiting the EU is not officially supported by Zeman, although at rallies in his support flags are frequently waved on which the EU symbol is crossed out.
The reasons for Zeman’s success are more complex. He has primarily become the candidate of all who can be called the “losers of the post-89 developments”. These are people who are disappointed, one way or another, with the developments after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. They are people in difficult situations (more than 700 000 people are subject to collections proceedings in the Czech Republic), people with low incomes (wage levels in the Czech Republic remain far below the EU average), and people living in the border regions from which ethnic Germans were displaced after the Second World War – regions that are owed a colossal economic, environmental and social debt by the rest of the country. In short, these are people who feel marginalized, who have the sense that society has forgotten them.
There is more than one sociodemographic dividing line between the “pro-Zeman” and “anti-Zeman” camps. This is about cities versus rural areas, the young versus the old, the more educated versus the less educated. A similar phenomenon could be seen in the USA during the election of Donald Trump, with the difference that Trump was elected by the “losers of globalization”, while in the Czech Republic this is connected, as has been said, with dissatisfaction over the consequences of the post-1989 political regime. Very simply put, people who for the time being have no reason to be concerned about their personal economic future voted for Jiří Drahoš, and the dissatified who are demanding a defense of certainties and “revenge” against those who are more successful voted for Miloš Zeman.
It is naturally somewhat of a paradox that the candidate of protest against the current system has become Zeman in particular, as since 1989 he has been one of the most important players in Czech politics. From 1996 to 1998 he chaired the lower house, from 1998 to 2002 he was Prime Minister of a single-party Government, and for the last five years he has influenced the politics of the country from the Office of the President at Prague Castle. The key to comprehending this paradox is the personality of the recently re-elected President. He is an ingenious opportunist who has always managed to sense the spirit of the day, to “inflate” it a bit and then to become its leader. His rhetorical ability, memory, intellect and indisputable charisma make it possible for him to give a convincing performance in all possible political positions, thanks to which he always manages to put together a majority of voters to carry him to power. That is what has just happened.
This time Zeman sensed that the subject that would decide the presidential elections is the question of migration. Since approximately 2015 he began appearing in the company of anti-Muslim extremists, called the wave of migration into Europe an “organized invasion”, and managed to create an atmosphere of fear, together with those extremists, in a country that is homogenous in terms of nationality and ethnicity. He did this despite the fact that the Czech Republic has accepted just 12 people as part of the EU’s migration quota and that during the last year, migrants heading to Germany who passed through the Czech Republic as a transit country could be counted in the mere hundreds.
What was important however, were not facts, but sentiment. Opposition to accepting any refugees ultimately became a Czech political mainstream position, and Zeman was considered its “leader”. He exploited that during the close of his electoral campaign, when he successfully associated his challenger, Drahoš, with the migration threat. His team covered the country with billboards reading “Stop immigrants and Drahoš. This country is ours. Vote Zeman.” It was a crude blow struck below the belt (Drahoš also opposes the EU’s relocation quotas), but it was perfectly effective. Due to their concerns that the Czech Republic might accept refugees, even some people who are not badly off at all voted for Zeman. In a country without any migrants to speak of, fear of them decided the outcome of the elections to a significant degree.
If we add to this overall depiction of the campaign the inexperience of Drahoš, who was defeated by Zeman in a key television debate, the communication errors committed by the Drahoš team, and the influence of the disinformation that impacted older voters especially, then the outcome was basically to be expected. Zeman managed, between the first and second rounds, to mobilize even those voters who customarily do not go to the polls. The turnout for the second round of 66.6 % was exceptional in the Czech context. It was ultimately not enough that Drahoš received the explicit support of other pro-EU candidates who had ended up between third and sixth place during the first round. Zeman won with 51.4 % of the vote compared to 48.6 % for his challenger.
For the domestic political developments in the country Zeman’s victory will have serious consequences. The President may not have formal decision-making powers in the Czech political system when it comes to the executive branch or foreign policy, but Zeman in particular has previously demonstrated that he is able to work “creatively” with the Constitution. According to many political scientists he moves along the very edge of what is constitutional and it can be anticipated that during his second term that tendency will decidedly not diminish.
Soon the President will exercise essential influence over the forming of the Government. It it solely up to him whether he will name Andrej Babiš Prime Minister a second time. That oligarch and chair of the populist ANO movement is in the middle of being prosecuted and is currently governing after a failed attempt to win a vote of confidence in the lower house – and all depends on what conditions Zeman will set for reappointing him. Zeman will probably want to become the architect of the Czech coalition Government through his newly-acquired influence over the Social Democrats, a party he previously chaired. The Czech Republic, therefore, could be heading toward what might be called a “crypto-presidential system”, i.e., a system where the President has no essential formal powers but is a key political player. At the same time it is probable that authoritarian methods of governance will gradually be advocated for more and more in the Czech Republic, as such methods are dear to both Zeman and current Prime Minister Babiš. The Czech Republic may quickly be classified along with Poland and Hungary as a Central European country where liberal democracy is in retreat.
As far as foreign policy consequences go, the outlook is similar. Zeman prefers a country facing east, arguing that new markets for Czech industry are there. This involves supporting Russia (opposing anti-Russian sanctions, recognizing its annexation of Crimea) and the Chinese totalitarian regime. Zeman may not have the power to “reverse” the Czech Republic’s foreign policy, as that is in the Government’s competence and Prime Minister Babiš is declaring that he is clearly pro-EU, calling the idea of exiting the EU dangerous nonsense. On the other hand, President Zeman has admitted the possibility of holding a referendum on the country leaving the EU, and if a law on a general referendum, which he is advocating for, manages to be approved, then absolutely nothing is off the table given the current atmosphere that dominates the country.
The Czech Republic, by electing Miloš Zeman, has chosen an uncertain future in every single respect.
Translation from Czech language: Gwendolyn Albert