Czechs Vote Whether Pro-Russia President Zeman Gets Second Term

Czechs are voting in a presidential ballot on whether to re-elect incumbent Milos Zeman, a frequent critic of European Union policies and a supporter of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, for a second five-year term.

Opinion polls show Zeman will probably garner the most votes in the first round but too few to avoid a Jan. 26-27 runoff with one of his eight challengers. Among them, Jiri Drahos is the most likely candidate to advance. A 68-year-old chemistry professor and former chief of the academy of science, Drahos pledges to improve ties with the EU and return “dignity” to the presidential post — a jab against Zeman, a chain smoker who had made headlines by swearing in public and haranguing journalists.

Polling stations reopen Saturday at 8 a.m. for a second day of voting and close at 2 p.m. Results are expected later in the day.

Zeman used his first term to carve out a stronger mandate for the largely ceremonial post through what he calls a “creative interpretation” of the constitution. Critics say his pro-Russian and anti-migrant rhetoric and support of anti-establishment forces including a far-right party that advocates leaving the EU, have polarized the country. He has won support by lashing out against what he calls urban elites, while his opponents say he’s sown doubt over whether Czechs should remain in the world’s largest trading bloc.

“He managed to cast himself in the role of the speaker for those disenfranchised, forgotten members of the society,” said Stanislav Balik, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno. “And that’s despite the fact that he’s spent the last 30 years in the highest echelons of Czech politics. Even though he’s been speaker of parliament, prime minister, and then president, many people consider him the defender of their rights against ‘those on top.”’

While the Czech Republic is the EU’s richest post-communist member by economic output per capita — it also has the bloc’s lowest unemployment and one of its fastest growth rates — Zeman has tapped into anti-migrant rhetoric resembling that of populist forces that scored gains in European elections last year. He has appointed billionaire Andrej Babis, with whom he shares dislike for the EU’s refugee policies, as prime minister, even though the tycoon’s single-party government doesn’t have a majority in parliament.

The president has pledged to grant Babis a second chance to form a cabinet if he fails to win parliamentary approval on the first try.

QuickTake Q&A on Zeman’s re-election bid and presidential powers