Voters in the Czech Republic are preparing for their most important election since 1989. On Jan. 26, they will begin heading to the polls to pick their next president. The winner of the first round of the two-stage election earlier this month was the incumbent Milos Zeman, who is facing a strong runoff challenge from Jiri Drahos, a pro-western centrist and the former head of the Academy of Sciences. As of now, the race is considered too close to call.
For Czechs, Zeman needs little introduction. He has spent his first five-year term excoriating migrants and Muslims, whipping up fears of terrorism, and praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He is possibly the closest thing to President Trump that we have today in Central Europe – except Zeman took office long before Trump did.
Some pundits have given Drahos the edge, noting that several of the losing candidates from the first round have pledged their support to him. If Drahos wins, it will be a triumph for the liberal European idea. He’s an ardent supporter of Czech membership in both the European Union and NATO.
Yet it is still far too early to count out Zeman — as he showed with his recent performance against Drahos in a televised debate, which he is widely perceived to have won. If he manages to win reelection, he will have good reason to claim a mandate for his Euroskeptic and anti-Atlanticist policies. And it will give him an excuse to shift the country from its current pro-Western orientation to a dependence on Moscow and Beijing.
Zeman’s trademark version of political incorrectness remains widely popular. A chain smoker and heavy drinker, he once declared that “journalists should be liquidated,” and said of a famous environmentalist group that he would treat them the “good old medieval way: burn them, piss on them and salt them.” He was one of the first European leaders to assume a hard-line stance during the 2015 refugee crisis, warning his compatriots to arm themselves for the possibility of a Muslim “super-Holocaust.” Last year, in a completely unprecedented move, the Czech president even endorsed the agenda of a far-right, anti-immigration party. This attests to the degree in which the explosive issue of immigration has transformed Czech politics almost beyond recognition over the past two years.
Modern Czech presidents have historically exerted influence on the country’s foreign policy, and Zeman is no different. Andrej Babis, the newly elected (and already embattled) prime minister, shows little interest in foreign policy, which suggests that he is likely to exert few constraints on the president — especially if Zeman receives a second mandate from an electorate that has had five years to acquaint itself with his beliefs.
Like Trump, and unlike his opponent, Zeman has little fondness for either NATO or the European Union, and has floated the idea that the Czech Republic should vote on withdrawal from both organizations. He also echoes Trump in his embrace of dictators around the world. He has openly defended Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, and has expressed open admiration for the way Chinese authorities “stabilize society.”
Drahos is coming under heavy fire from the same pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets that have supported Zeman over the years. Among their other efforts, they are sharing false news stories that depict the challenger as inviting terrorists into the country. Another widely circulated article claims that Drahos worked with the secret police in the former Czechoslovakia after being blackmailed for pedophilia — though there is no objective evidence for any of this.
It is no coincidence that Zeman’s best friend among foreign leaders is Putin, with whom he regularly meets. The Czech president has repeatedly called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted, and has expressed tacit support for the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, claiming that the land grab was a “fait accompli.” Zeman has also strenuously denied the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine: “I take seriously the statement by Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov that there are no Russian soldiers there,” he declared in 2014, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine could not ask for a better ally in Central Europe. One of Zeman’s key advisers is Martin Nejedly, who has close business ties with Russia and has used his position to lobby for strategic energy contracts to be given to Russian firms. A few years ago, when Nejedly got into legal difficulties and was ordered to pay a $1.4 million fine, he was saved by the Russian energy company Lukoil, which stepped in to pay the fine on his behalf.
Nejedly is also the finance chief for Zeman’s current presidential campaign, which has accepted large amounts of money from unidentified donors.
Liberals in the Czech Republic have high hopes that Drahos will restore the country’s battered reputation as a bulwark of western values. Yet despite all Zeman’s flaws, there is still a strong chance that he – a populist, openly pro-Russian candidate who is directly supported by the Kremlin – might win the presidential election.
Jakub Janda is the deputy director of the Prague-based European Values Think Tank.