Pro-Russian Czech president Zeman to face liberal in run-off

PRAGUE: Russia-friendly incumbent Milos Zeman will face pro-Europe challenger Jiri Drahos in a runoff for the Czech presidency after the two were the top vote-getters in the first round of the national election.

With nearly all the ballots counted on January 13, Zeman had 38.6 per cent of the vote, with Drahos, a scientist, taking 26.6 per cent. The third-place finisher had 10.2 per cent.

Since no candidate took more than 50 per cent in the first round, Zeman and Drahos will meet in the runoff scheduled for January 26-27.

At least three of the also-ran candidates expressed support for Drahos in the second round, and a poll conducted by Czech Television gave the challenger a 48.5 per cent to 44 per cent lead over Zeman.

As president, Zeman has divided the Central European country of 10.5 million with his pro-Russian stance and his support for closer ties with China. He’s also become known for strong anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“I invite all those who want to vote for me to come to the polling stations in round two, too, and bring your friends, your lovers, and their mistresses,” the boisterous Zeman told supporters at his Prague campaign headquarters.

“I congratulate Jiri Drahos for this beautiful second place,” he said.

The president in the Czech Republic has limited executive power. But he does select the prime minister and appoints Central Bank members. The president picks Constitutional Court judges as well with the approval of parliament’s upper house.

The 73-year-old Zeman was first elected in 2013 when the Czech Republic held its first direct presidential vote. The victory returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power.

When he voted in Prague on January 12, Zeman was confronted by a topless female activist with “Zeman, Putin’s slut” scrawled across her chest, a reference to Zeman’s close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The woman was later identified as Angelina Dash, a member of the international radical feminist group Femen that originated in Ukraine.

Drahos, 68, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, is seen as a pro-European liberal.

A political newcomer with no political party affiliation, he has said he wants the values of “truth, reason, and decency” to win.

He says he is worried about the rise of extremism and populism. A professor of chemistry, he headed the academy from 2009 until last year.

After the first round, Drahos urged all those “who want a change” to cast ballots in the runoff.

“The final is still ahead of us, and that’s what matters,” he said.

The French AFP news agency quoted analyst Jiri Pehe as saying that “Zeman will have a huge problem in the second round.”

“It is clear that the other candidates who have dropped out of the race, for example, Pavel Fischer, Marek Hilser, and Michal Horacek, will vote Jiri Drahos in Round 2,” Pehe said.

Fischer, Horacek, and Hilser – who had a total of 28 per cent of the vote – all voiced support for Drahos heading into the second round.

Voter turnout for the two-day first-round election was put at 61.88 per cent among the country’s 8.4 million registered voters.


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