The Czech Republic – The 2018 Presidential Elections: A Divided Country

Miloš Zeman, the incumbent president of the Czech Republic, has been re-elected. His success is likely to usher in yet another divisive presidency. To date, Zeman’s time in office has been characterized by his provocative style, his contempt for most of the media, an unpredictability in domestic politics, his clearly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy and, consequently, a lack of respect from many EU member states’ representatives.

Despite a number of controversial steps and speeches both in domestic and foreign policy, President Zeman entered the presidential contest as the favourite. In total, eight male candidates challenged the incumbent. Most of them lacked both party membership and political experience, which clearly points to the weakness and low self-confidence of Czech political parties. Indeed, no parliamentary party put up a candidate in the presidential race.

The Czech president is popularly elected for a five-year term. The first election was in 2013. In order to be elected, a candidate must receive more than 50 per cent of the votes cast at the first ballot. If none of the candidates meets this requirement, a second round is held. The two candidates who received the highest number of the votes in the first round are eligible for the second round.

In line with pre-election surveys, President Zeman topped the poll in the first round, followed by Jiří Drahoš. Mr. Drahoš is the former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He entered the contest as the complete opposite to Miloš Zeman. Drahoš lacked political experience, whereas Miloš Zeman often pointed to his long political career that dates back to the 1989 revolution that put an end to the Communist dictatorship. Zeman was the former chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002. By contrast, Drahoš is a non-partisan, portraying himself as an honest and fair man without any scandals and controversies in his career. He was also strongly oriented towards the EU and NATO and was highly sceptical position towards Russia, which he described as a major security threat to the Czech Republic. Most of these policies were also shared by several other candidates, including Pavel Fischer, the former Czech ambassador to France and a close aide to the first Czech president Václav Havel.

Long before the elections, President Zeman divided the Czech electorate. On the one hand, he had a significant pool of staunch supporters. Zeman is a skilful politician with excellent rhetoric (always speaking off-the-cuff), well-prepared arguments in debates and and instinct for the public mood and popular preferences. On the other hand, his foreign policy, vulgarisms, harsh attacks on some media and political parties as well as individual politicians gave rise to a heterogeneous group of fierce critics.

Mr. Zeman won the first popularly-held elections in 2013. Then, he narrowly beat Mr. Schwarzenberg, a popular and charismatic Minister of foreign Affairs in a highly unpopular right-wing cabinet led by Petr Nečas. Following the 2013 elections, and in contrast to his predecessor President Klaus, President Zeman quickly reached a compromise with the Senate over the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, where the terms of a number of judges were soon to expire. President Zeman helped avert this unfortunate situation and together with the Senate appointed largely uncontroversial and respected personalities to the Constitutional Court. President Zeman informally, but significantly meddled in the internal affairs of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally been divided between Zeman’s supporters and his critics at least since Zeman left the party in 2007. For example, his hostile relations with the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka (2013-2017), were often referred to by the foreign media.

It is plausible to assert that Zeman earned his popularity by his almost permanent travelling across the country, visiting regions, speaking to regional and local political leaders, as well as to factory workers, pensioners, students and the like. This patient (and exhausting) strategy helped to create the largely positive image of himself as a popular president who pays attention to ordinary, lower-class or forgotten people in the Czech peripheries. This aspect of Zeman’s presidency together with his deteriorating health (e.g. diabetes, tiredness, limited ability to walk) may explain Zeman’s decision not to run an election campaign. In practice this meant that Zeman did not participate in any of the presidential debates prior the first round of the election. In addition, on most occasions he rejected any requests for media interviews. At the same time, he still enjoyed widespread media coverage. The President was heavily involved in the (still ongoing) government formation process following the October 2017 parliamentary elections and participated in a number of state ceremonies. Moreover, he regularly attended a show called a “Week with the President” broadcast by a private TV channel, which made no secret of the fact that President Zeman was its favoured candidate for the presidential contest. Friendly and uncontroversial questions allowed Zeman to present himself as a clever and responsible statesman. The very fact that President Zeman himself officially conducted no campaign did not prevent his followers and sponsors from making a very efficient, visible and costly outdoor and on-line campaign for President Zeman.

The major disadvantage of Zeman’s challengers (with the exception of the former Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek) was simple, but serious: none of them was a widely known person and above all they needed to let the voters know who they were. Even before the second round, Mr. Drahoš was still a little known (or even unknown) candidate for a significant proportion of voters, which affected the election result.

Only after the results of the first round were announced when Mr. Drahoš did very well, emboldening all the anti-Zeman camp to believe that the incumbent was not invincible, did President Zeman change strategy and agree to participate in two televised presidential debates. Mr. Drahoš tried to attack Zeman, drawing public attention to a series of failures and problems (including lack of transparency in the campaign fund-raising, questionable members of Zeman’s advisory team with close ties to Kremlin and Beijing). Despite Drahoš’ best efforts, observers agreed that President Zeman won the debates.

Results of the 2018 Czech presidential elections:

Candidates Party First Round Second Round
votes % votes %
Mirek Topolánek non-partisan 221 689 4,3 X X
Michal Horáček non-partisan 472 643 9,18 X X
Pavel Fischer non-partisan 526 694 10,23 X X
Jiří Hynek Realisté (“Realists”) 63 348 1,23 X X
Petr Hannig Rozumní (“The Reasonable”) 29 228 0,56 X X
Vratislav Kulhánek ODA (Civic Democratic Alliance) 24 442 0,47 X X
Miloš Zeman SPO (Party of Civic Rights) 1 985 547 38,56 2 853 390 51,36
Marek Hilšer non-partisan 454 949 8,83 X X
Jiří Drahoš non-partisan 1 369 601 26,6 2 701 206 48,63

Source: https://volby.cz/pls/prez2018/pe2?xjazyk=CZ

In the end, Zeman narrowly won the contest (see table above), but the country remains divided. This is exemplified by the fact that the turnout in the second round reached almost 67%, which is the highest in any Czech nation-wide election over the past two decades. The division in the electorate dates back to the 2013 presidential elections and its existence was confirmed by the 2017 parliamentary elections. What is the difference between President Zeman’s followers and those of his opponents? President Zeman found most of his voters in smaller towns and villages in the Czech peripheries, whereas Mr. Drahoš won in Prague, the Central Bohemia region and in most of large cities. It also seems that older voters with lower education and income levels largely voted for Miloš Zeman. Zeman was also able to take advantage of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Czech population. Despite the fact that only a handful of migrants actually settled in the Czech Republic, migration issues and the EU migrant quotas were important themes of the campaign. It also seems correct to argue that Zeman represented nationalist voters, who are sceptical and even hostile to the EU and NATO (although Zeman was careful to advocate the Czech membership of both organizations), and voters with strong anti-party sentiments. To sum up, President Zeman was able to forge an unique informal electoral alliance of the far-left (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which praised the former Communist dictatorship), the ruling populist ANO led by the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, radical right-wing populists (the anti-migrant movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy”, favouring a “Czexit), Eurosceptical right-wing voters, and a significant portion of the Czech Social Democratic Party’s voters. This heterogeneous alliance now holds a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

What can we expect from the incumbent? Mr. Zeman will probably keep pursuing his policies as well as his divisive political style. In his first speech following the election, he attacked Prague voters (in Prague President Zeman got only 31% of the vote). For the next few weeks and months, Zeman’s role in the government formation process will be key. In December 2017 Zeman appointed Andrej Babiš as the new prime minister. Babiš formed a one-party minority cabinet composed of ANO nominees. Yet, his cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in January 2018, mainly because Mr. Babiš is being prosecuted by the police. He has been formally charged with fraud in a case involving a two million euro EU subsidy. Yet, Mr. Zeman and Mr. Babiš have so far supported each other. The former openly sided with the latter in the 2018 presidential contest and Mr. Zeman promised to appoint Mr. Babiš Prime Minister again in February 2018. At the moment, Mr. Babiš leads a caretaker cabinet that resigned in January following the no-confidence vote. However, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to execute its functions until a new cabinet is formed. The media are now speculating that the Social Democrats will  change their leaders following their February party congress and abandon their reluctant approach towards the Babiš cabinet. As a result, Babiš might be able to make a coalition deal with the Social Democrats. The new Babiš coalition could be supported by the Communist Party in order to obtain a parliamentary majority in the Chamber of Deputies. This scenario is also supported by Miloš Zeman. Be it as it may, Zeman has won his last great political battle (the constitution forbids him to run for yet another term) and he will remain an influential player in Czech politics.

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