Czechs vote tomorrow and Saturday, in what on all accounts will be a very close runoff for the country’s presidency, between incumbent Miloš Zeman and challenger Jiří Drahoš.
Zeman led comfortably in the first round, held two weeks ago (read my preview here), scoring 38.6% to Drahoš’s 26.6%. But the next four placegetters, with 32.5% of the vote between them, have all endorsed Drahoš. If they can control their voters at all well, he will win comfortably.
Voters, however, are rarely that obedient, and unseating an incumbent president is hard. When, as in Czechia, the role is supposed to be just ceremonial, serious challenges to a second term are rare.
But Zeman is something of a special case. He embodies much of what is so frightening about recent politics in Europe: authoritarian, racist, protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU and apparently beholden to Vladimir Putin. A few years ago, when this current started to gain serious momentum, we lacked a convenient label for it, but now “Trumpist” fits the bill admirably.
Drahoš is his polar opposite: a distinguished academic and former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, he is centrist in his politics, pro-European and sympathetic to refugees. As Ruth Fraňková puts it at Radio Prague, Drahoš believes “the president’s role is first of all to cultivate the political scene and represent the country abroad in a dignified matter. He should openly declare that the Czech Republic is part of the western world and highlight the necessity to be part of the European Union.”
If Drahoš can pull it off, it will complete a central European trifecta: centrist candidates have previously beaten more authoritarian rivals for the presidency in both neighboring Slovakia and Austria. All three positions, in theory, are just ceremonial. But these are uncertain times in the region, and heads of state may easily be called upon to make some very politically loaded decisions.
Czechia is a prime example: prime minister Andrej Babiš lacks a parliamentary majority and faces likely prosecution for fraud. But Zeman has stuck by him as he tries to construct a governing coalition, earning in return Babiš’s endorsement for his re-election.
I don’t buy the conspiracy theory that sees Babiš himself as a Trumpist or Eurosceptic, and in the event that gets a parliamentary majority to back him I doubt that he’ll have any qualms about telling Zeman to butt out. But as long as there’s a president determined to be a political player, the goal of political stability will be that much harder to achieve.