Two presidents back, another in doubt

As expected, the runoff in the Czech presidential election was much closer than the first round (see my preview here). Incumbent Miloš Zeman led by 12.0% in the first round, but at the weekend he beat challenger Jiří Drahoš with just 51.4%, a margin of just over 150,000 votes. Turnout was a healthy 66.6%, up from 59.1% in 2013.

But getting close isn’t enough: although the forces of liberal democracy rallied impressively to Drahoš, they weren’t able to prevent Zeman’s re-election.

This is a bad sign for Czechia and for Europe. Whether it has more than symbolic importance, however, only time will tell; the presidency is a ceremonial position, and Zeman is likely to have only marginal influence on the key question of whether or not prime minister Andrej Babiš can put together a parliamentary majority – and if so, which parties it will rely on.

One of many signs that the Iron Curtain still matters in Europe is that in the west, re-electing a ceremonial head of state isn’t controversial. Typically they run with only token opposition: Ireland’s was unopposed in 2004, as was Iceland’s in 2008. But in central and eastern Europe, close contests are the norm.

Zeman’s winning margin is eerily similar to the 51.5% with which the hard right’s candidate won the last Polish presidential election in 2015, unseating the centrist incumbent. An incumbent was also beaten in Croatia the same year, even more narrowly, and Slovenia’s president was re-elected only narrowly last year, with 52.9%. It’s seems as if countries that are new to democracy are more likely to take the opportunity for a serious contest whenever they can.

As an example from the other side of the line (although geographically, of course, it is much further east than Czechia), take Finland, which voted in its presidential election on Sunday. The Finnish presidency was once a powerful position, but constitutional amendments in 2000 and 2012 have reduced it to a ceremonial role.

And sure enough, centre-right incumbent Sauli Niinistö was not seriously troubled. He was re-elected for a second term on the first round with 62.7% against seven opponents. Only the Greens’ Pekka Haavisto reached double figures, with 12.4%.

But there was yet a third presidential election in Europe last weekend, and it was different again.

Most European countries, like Czechia and Finland, are parliamentary systems, where the head of state (whether president or monarch) plays a ceremonial role, only taking on political importance in exceptional circumstances. A few, of which France is the paradigm case, are semi-presidential, with executive power shared between president and parliament.

Only one is a fully presidential system, where the head of state is also head of government and is not responsible to the legislature. That’s the system we’re familiar with from the United States, but its only example in Europe is Cyprus.*

Incumbent Nicos Anastasiades, from the centre-right Democratic Rally, won the job fairly comfortably in 2013 with 57.5% in the second round (my preview of that election has useful background information). Cyprus was badly battered by the global financial crisis, so it was not an easy gig, and in the circumstances he seems to have done reasonably well.

On the upside, the economy looks to be back on track; on the downside, the peace process with the Turkish-occupied north has failed to make progress. (Al-Jazeera’s background report is particularly good.)

To a large extent the first round of the election looked like a rerun of last time. Anastasiades again led the field, although his 35.5% was down 10% on 2013. The runner-up – whom he will face in the second round next Sunday – was again Communist-backed Stavros Malas, whose 30.2% represented a gain of 3.3%.

Close behind in third place, like last time, was a centrist/nationalist candidate; this time Nikolas Papadopoulos, with 25.7%. The far right had 5.7% and another five candidates soaked up the remaining 2.9%. Turnout was down sharply, to 71.9%.

Last time, Malas made up ground in the runoff, but not a lot: he turned a deficit of 18.6% into one of 15.0%. That wouldn’t be enough to win this time either, but it would put him close, and his supporters sound upbeat, so the second round is certainly no foregone conclusion.


* Two other European countries have complete separation between executive and legislature, but neither has an elected president: Switzerland has a collegial executive and Monaco is a constitutional monarchy.

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