Incumbent Milos Zeman has comfortably won the first round of the Czech presidential election, but looks set to face a tough fight against pro-EU challenger Jiri Drahos in a run-off in two weeks’ time.
With more than 99 per cent of votes counted, Mr Zeman — a larger-than-life former prime minister who has split opinion with his strongly pro-Russian and anti-migrant stances — had received 38.6 per cent of the vote.
Mr Drahos, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, came second with 26.6, according to the Czech Statistics Office. However, within hours of polls closing, four other candidates — who between them won 32 per cent of the vote in the first found — urged their supporters to back Mr Drahos in the run-off.
Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague, said if the supporters of the four candidates — Michal Horacek, Pavel Fischer, Marek Hilser and Mirek Topolanek — followed their advice to back Mr Drahos, Mr Zeman would face an uphill battle.
“Zeman is going to have to work hard to get the extra 10 per cent. Horacek, Fischer and Hilser all have between 8 and 10 per cent. If their voters all turn out in the second round, then we know who the winner will be. It will be very important for Zeman to mobilise his voters,” he said.
“Paradoxically, although Zeman won the first round with a margin of 12 per cent, he is the one who now has to come up with something.”
Mr Drahos, who has pledged to improve the Czech Republic’s relations with the EU, sought to rally support by portraying himself as a break with the status quo. “Everyone who is interested in change, come and vote, come and vote, come and vote,” he said on Saturday.
Although the Czech presidency is a largely ceremonial role, the president plays a key role in the formation of new governments — a role which has taken on additional significance as Czech prime minister Andrej Babis struggles to form a government following an inconclusive parliamentary election in October.
The presidency also offers a platform from which the incumbent can seek to influence the Czech political discourse, which the 73-year-old Mr Zeman has frequently done during his five years in office.
His plain-speaking persona and frequent attacks on groups ranging from Muslim migrants to the media and the elites of “Prague coffee-house society” have won him legions of supporters in the Czech Republic’s regions and smaller towns.
However, his stance has alienated many liberal Czechs, and his outspoken foreign policy interventions — notably his criticism of sanctions against Russia and his description of its annexation of Crimea as a “fait accompli” — have often clashed with official Czech policy.
“I will vote for Drahos in the second round” said Jakub Ralek from Prague, who voted for Mr Hilser in the first round. “Milos Zeman didn’t persuade me that he is a good president.”
In a press conference after the vote, Mr Zeman — who has so far shunned debates with the other candidates — said that he would be prepared to take on Mr Drahos in a debate. “I’ve never been afraid to take part in various discussions. I’m still young and full of strength and energy,” he said.