The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.
Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.
To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.
At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.
Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.
ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.