Pro-Israel Zeman scores second term as Czech president

Populist ex-communist takes 51.55 percent of vote against 48.44 percent for liberal rival Jiri Drahos, with 99.32 percent of ballots counted

Pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman (seated) is applauded as he celebrates his victory with his staff members after he was reelected Czech president, January 27, 2018, at the Top hotel in Prague. (AFP / RADEK MICA)
Pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman (seated) is applauded as he celebrates his victory with his staff members after he was reelected Czech president, January 27, 2018, at the Top hotel in Prague. (AFP / RADEK MICA)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Incumbent Milos Zeman, a strong supporter of Israel, was re-elected Czech president on Saturday, narrowly outpacing his pro-European liberal rival Jiri Drahos in a tight run-off that underscored deep divisions in the EU and NATO state.

The populist, pro-Russian ex-communist Zeman took 51.55 percent of the vote against 48.44 percent for Drahos, with 99.32 percent of ballots counted, Czech Television reported quoting official results.

Political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP the results reflected the “very deep polarization” of Czech society which is “split down the middle” along rural-urban and populist-liberal lines, echoing divisions elsewhere in Europe and in the US.

A former leftist prime minister, the 73-year-old Zeman represents poorer and rural voters with a lower level of education, while academic and political novice Drahos, 68, appeals to wealthier, well-educated urbanites.

“It’s not only between Prague and other big cities on one side and the rest of the country, but also a polarization of world views between people open to the outside world and modernization, and those rooted in the past,” Pehe told AFP.

“We see that half of society is afraid of the outside world, globalization, and its challenges.”

Zeman’s victory comes amid a political crisis as billionaire populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis is fighting police charges of EU subsidy fraud that are hampering his ability to form a government.

In the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe, the vehemently anti-Muslim Zeman staunchly opposed EU quotas designed to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.

Even though the country of 10.6 million people has only received 12 migrants under the EU quota system, migration was a key campaign issue.

Zeman’s stance on the European Union echoes other populist politicians in Poland and Hungary, who are at odds with Brussels over mandatory refugee quotas and various rules which they see as attempts to limit national sovereignty.

He once called the 2015 migrant crisis “an organized invasion” of Europe, claiming Muslims were “impossible to integrate.”

Billboards across the Czech Republic sought to appeal to voters with anti-migrant messages: “Stop immigrants and Drahos. This is our country. Vote Zeman!”

According to Pehe, his position cast Zeman as “the defender of Czech national interests in the eyes of his supporters.”

The pro-European Drahos had also opposed the EU quota system but had insisted the Czech Republic was strong enough to accept its allotted 2,600 refugees.

In the final days of campaigning Drahos underscored his concerns about possible Russian meddling in the campaign, saying that “for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s regime, NATO is the biggest enemy and we are part of NATO.”

Petr Vasicek, a Prague artist, told AFP that he chose the “educated and intelligent” Drahos over Zeman who is “pro-Russian and pro-Chinese, which I don’t like at all.”

Zeman has repeatedly called on the EU to lift its sanctions on Russia over its 2014 takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.

He was also 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.

Voter Daniel Hajek said he had chosen Zeman “because he’s opening the door to economic cooperation with countries like Russia and China.”

“It’s important for us, for jobs; our country is at the heart of Europe but we can’t go in just one direction,” he said in Prague.

Europe’s fifth-biggest carmaker is dependent on auto exports, mainly to the eurozone, and its economy is expected to expand by 3.4 percent this year.

Running under the slogan “Decency is a strength,” Drahos, a 68-year-old professor of chemical engineering who is a newcomer to politics, could not have been more different.

Zeman is diabetic, walks with a cane, and is known to be a heavy drinker and smoker, while Drahos cuts a trim figure.

A mild-mannered centrist whom critics have branded “wishy-washy,” Drahos wanted Prague to “play a more active role in the EU,” and backs joining the eurozone.

Drahos fought off allegations of pedophilia and having been a communist police agent, suggesting the accusations were a smear campaign by Russian intelligence with links to Zeman.

Although largely ceremonial, the president’s role is influential. He can appoint the prime minister and government, central bank board members, judges, and university professors, and sign bills passed by parliament into laws.

Czech TV pegged turnout for round two at 66.55 percent, against 59 percent for the last presidential ballot in 2013.

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