(Bloomberg) -- Czechs concluded voting in a presidential ballot on whether to re-elect incumbent Milos Zeman, a frequent critic of European Union policies and a supporter of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for a second five-year term.
Opinion polls show Zeman will probably garner the most votes but too few to avoid a Jan. 26-27 runoff with one of his eight challengers. Jiri Drahos -- a 68-year-old chemistry professor and former chief of the academy of science -- is the most likely candidate to advance. He is pledging to improve ties with the EU and return “dignity” to the presidential post, a jab against Zeman, who has made headlines by swearing in public, engaging with far-right groups, and haranguing journalists. First round results are due out later Saturday.
Zeman, 73, used his first term to carve out a stronger mandate for the largely ceremonial post through what he calls a “creative interpretation” of the constitution. Critics say his pro-Russian and anti-migrant rhetoric and support of anti-establishment forces including a far-right party that advocates leaving the EU, have polarized the country. He has won support by lashing out against what he calls urban elites, while his opponents say he’s sown doubt over whether Czechs should remain in the world’s largest trading bloc.
“He managed to cast himself in the role of the speaker for those disenfranchised, forgotten members of the society,” said Stanislav Balik, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno. “And that’s despite the fact that he’s spent the last 30 years in the highest echelons of Czech politics. Even though he’s been speaker of parliament, prime minister, and then president, many people consider him the defender of their rights against ‘those on top.”’
While the Czech Republic is the EU’s richest post-communist member by economic output per capita -- it also has the bloc’s lowest unemployment and one of its fastest growth rates -- Zeman has tapped into anti-migrant rhetoric resembling that of populist forces that scored gains in European elections last year. He has appointed billionaire Andrej Babis, with whom he shares dislike for the EU’s refugee policies, as prime minister, even though the tycoon’s single-party government doesn’t have a majority in parliament.
The president has pledged to grant Babis a second chance to form a cabinet if he fails to win parliamentary approval on the first try. In turn, Babis has said he’d vote for Zeman, who also spoke at the congress of the Freedom and Direct Democracy, a anti-establishment party that has called for Czechs to harass Muslims and also leave the European Union.
Opposition parties have decried Zeman’s alliance with Babis, but opinion polls show the president’s office to be the most trusted constitutional institution, ahead of the government and parliament, whose popularity has suffered amid bickering among coalitions and cabinet collapses. Among other powers, the president has the right to name central bank board members and is the commander-in-chief of the NATO member’s military.
While Zeman’s backing for Babis may prolong political uncertainty as the cabinet is expected to lose a confidence vote next week, Czech financial assets have been largely immune. The koruna, which was the best performer among the world’s major currencies in 2017, has gained 0.1 percent against the euro this year.
Zeman has been one of the most prominent voices in Europe to call for the abolition of sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. He has also linked Islam to terrorist attacks in Europe. That message resonates with his supporters, even though virtually no Muslim migrants have tried to settle in the country of 10.6 million people.
“His opinions make sense, and he cares about the problems of real people,” Alena Benesova, a pensioner in her 70s, said in Prague. “He’s against migrants -- that’s really important. When you look across the border and see what’s happening there, thank God we don’t have that here.”
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