Czech president to face run off after failing to secure first round win

Czech president to face run off after failing to secure first round win

Pro-Israel Milos Zeman to square off against Jiri Drahos, who is considered more Western-oriented and pro-EU than the incumbent

Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman holds a speech during a Parliament session in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (AP/Petr David Josek)
Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman holds a speech during a Parliament session in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (AP/Petr David Josek)

PRAGUE — Czech President Milos Zeman failed to win re-election during the first round of voting on Saturday and will face a runoff election in two weeks against the former head of the country’s Academy of Sciences.

Zeman and Jiri Drahos advanced to the second round of the presidential election because none of the nine candidates seeking the largely ceremonial post received a majority of first-round votes.

With ballots from 95 percent of polling stations counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Zeman had a big lead with 39.3 percent of the vote, followed by Drahos with 26.3 percent. A former diplomat, Pavel Fischer, was a distant third with 10.1 percent.

“I invite all those who want to vote for me to come to the polling stations in round two, and bring your friends, your lovers, and their mistresses,” the flamboyant 73-year-old Zeman told supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in Prague.

“In the previous presidential election [2013], I got 24 percent in the first round and 54 percent in round two, and this year already 40 percent in round one,” he added.

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

Drahos said, “The final is still ahead of us and that’s what matters,” of the January 26-27 runoff. He called on all those “who want a change” to cast ballots.

A former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Drahos told supporters at his Prague headquarters that he would spend the next 15 days campaigning to “anchor the Czech Republic in Euro-Atlanticism” in a clear jibe at the Kremlin-oriented Zeman

Zeman was elected in 2013 during the country’s first direct presidential vote, a victory that returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power. As president, he has become a strong anti-migrant voice and major pro-Russian voice in EU politics.

Drahos, 68, is seen as more western-oriented and pro-EU.

Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos is seen at his election headquarters in Prague after the first round of voting in the presidential election on January 13, 2018. (AFP Photo/Michal Cizek)

The previous two presidents of the republic created in 1993 after the split of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were elected by Parliament.

Under the Czech Constitution, the president has the power to pick the prime minister and to appoint members of the Central Bank board. The president also selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power, since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

In office, Zeman became known for strong anti-migrant rhetoric that won him support from the populist right. His pro-Russia stance and his support for closer ties with China have also been divisive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with Czech President Milos Zeman at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 7, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

A chain smoker with a soft spot for alcohol, he was one of the few European leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the White House.

Zeman, who is known as a supporter of Israel, also has voiced support for Trump’s plan to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He later accused EU states of being “cowards” in their response to Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Unlike his eurosceptic predecessor Klaus, he flew the European Union flag at Prague Castle and used to be considered pro-Europe. But in recent years he has used every opportunity to attack the EU, and has proposed a referendum on the country’s membership in the bloc after Britain decided to leave.

Drahos is a political newcomer who is not affiliated with a political party and 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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