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Miloš Zeman: Charisma winning over “goody mediocrity”

Miloš Zeman. Photo: cnn.com

Charismatic, occasionally rude, Miloš Zeman won the second round of presidential election in the Czech Republic leaving behind mediocre but always polite, pro-European and pro-American Jiri Drahos. The European Union would not be happy with such outcome, unlike Russia that had little role in the voting, but Zeman is acceptable to it. The Czech voting showed that charisma and bright personalities are still welcome in present-day European politics.

On March 8, the 73-year-old Zeman will swear-in again after a tight vote and retain power until 2023. He was re-elected by 51.36% votes, while his rival, former president of the Academy of Sciences Jiri Drahos received 48.63%. Such outcome shows that the Czech Republic, Europe and even Russia will not feel bored with the new president.

The attention to the election in the Czech Republic was high, given that it is a 10-million-strong, average developed state by European standards. It can have no big influence on the state of affairs in EU, but it means a lot for Europe. After all, Czech Republic is one of the richest and most developed former socialist states in Europe and its capital city is one of the world’s key tourist attractions, where the people are not eager to work abroad.

However, this is not enough to attract so high attention to the election. The personality of President Zeman, one of the brightest politicians of present-day Europe, garnered a lot of attention. His bright, sometimes shocking behavior and rude (up to bleeping) statements have repeatedly shocked European and other politicians who are used to strictness, format and etiquette.

Zeman has repeatedly appeared drunk in public. He could easily insult his political rival or politician he dislikes in his own country. He openly called many Ukrainian politicians “thieves.” Zeman has made quite sharp statements on Islam as well. He called Muslims “representatives of anti-civilization.” He has become a persona non-grata in Egypt for such statements for almost 20 years. However, that did not make the Czech president guard his words.

There are three reasons why EU leadership dislikes the Czech president. The first is his refusal to accept refugees under quota set by Brussels. The second reason is Zeman’s calls for lifting the sanctions against Russia, which, as he says, affect both the Czech and European economies. And finally, after Brexit referendum, Zeman hinted that in such circumstances he might declare a similar referendum in his country.

Besides, Zeman is very different from most European politicians, mediocre bureaucrats, who coordinate their every step with their bosses. Meantime, Zeman is not afraid of violating political correctness and going against the stream.

He irritates many pro-European parliamentarians and other officials inside his country as well. Zeman is an obstacle to their way to power. The local intellectuals who have already “fit into” the European format do not like him either. Zeman’s hard line policy and rudeness are strange to them.

The authors of the following statements have talked to the above category of citizens and here is what they normally complain about: “Why did he leave for China? Did he want to destroy our light industry? He shouldn’t have left to that country, our place is in Europe.” “Russia violates the international law, it has become the one it was in 1968, when its tanks arrived here. How can he travel to that country?” And finally, “how can a president stagger from vodka and use swear words on television?”

Most of leading Czech mass media have criticized the president. Political analysts - most of them are funded by U.S., EU and Germany – gave mostly negative comments about the president. The foreign press called the Czech president “a Eurosceptic,” “the Kremlin’s hand,” “a part of East-European Fronde to Brussels, Poland and Hungary.” The comments meant it would be good sending Zeman in his resignation.

During the presidential election, it turned out that almost all his rivals run for president with a slogan “Zeman, Leave!” Among them were old diplomats and businessmen, quite young people and former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, who was caught in a corruption scandal at the time. Perhaps, there were no women among them. Eventually, Jiri Drahos, chemist, the former president of the Academy of Sciences, assumed the role of Zeman’s key rival in the presidential race.

The 68-year-old Drahos is a political novice. He has not been a member of any political party and has not been involved in any political squabbles. Nevertheless, his campaign was within the “required format” – Czech Republic must support the sanctions against Russia, increase military spending at the request of NATO, wage pro-European and pro-American policy. Finally, Drahos said he might accept 2600 refugees under quota set by EU. Besides, his manners were quite good.

The incumbent president did not even campaign properly in the first round, but received 38.56% of votes, whereas Drahos was supported by only 26.6% of voters. The turnout was 61.88%. All the candidates who failed to reach the second round of election called the voters to support Drahos. It seemed that Zeman had no chances to win. Public opinion polls after the first round showed 60% support to Drahos versus 40% to Zeman.

Suddenly, Zeman decided to get involved in the presidential race. Master of public debates, Zeman offered his rival four debates on television. Drahos accepted only two, but it proved enough for Zeman to change the situation.

During TV debates, Drahos looked rather pathetic. He began to blame Russia for possible interference into the voting, as Zeman’s victory is more preferable to it. However, he could say nothing to prove his suspicions. This angered the incumbent president. “Do you consider us (voters), those who came to voting, fools, who can be told how to vote?” he said. Drahos had nothing to say in response.

Drahos could win Zeman with an attractive program, but he failed to present any. Instead, he tried to scare Czech voters with Russia, which was not a good idea. Russia’s influence on the Czech politics is vanishing, and ordinary Czechs do not feel any serious threat from it. Although Czechs cannot be called Russophile, extreme Russophobia is not about them either. So, Drahos’ anti-Russian remarks just scared the voters away.

His readiness to increase military spending, accept refugees and follow EU and NATO also discouraged part of the voters. Czech Republic is one the most peaceful countries in the world and refuges from Middle East and Africa may disturb that peace. An increase in military spending against Russia is not clear enough to the people. And the willingness to follow recommendations of foreign countries did not seem attractive to the country that experienced Munich Agreement of 1938 or deployment of Soviet troops 30 years later.

Historical memory of the Czechs makes many insist that future decisions are made in Prague, not in Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, or on the Mars. That is why, the Czechs opposed deployment of U.S. air defense systems in their territory 10 years ago (Zeman did not want to see those systems in the country either). Zeman became a symbol of the Czech independence, as he was able to say “no” to the world powers at the right moment.

Calling Zeman “Eurosceptic” and “Kremlin’s agent” was too much. It was during his premiership (1998-2002) that Czech Republic launched talks to access EU. He has never urged for leaving EU or NATO. Besides, he does not welcome Russia’s policy on Ukraine (except Crimea issue). And during Socialism, he was in disgrace. So, he has successfully got rid of the labels stuck to him.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, whose party swept the parliamentary elections in October 2017, called on his supporters to vote for Zeman. This happened after Drahos refused to promise him the prime minister’s post, since he has been under investigation. Brussels does not like Babiš, instead he has relatively good ties with Zeman.

Finally, Zeman enlisted the support of another popular man – former president Václav Klaus. That politician is an outspoken critic of Europe in the world. He is known with his hardline policy when it comes to protection of the national interests. Like Zeman, Klaus has checkered reputation inside the country. However, many support Klaus for successful economic reforms and independence of the country.

As a result, Zeman’s charisma coupled with the support of Babiš and Klaus ensured 66.6% turnout and re-election to the post of the Czech President. Nevertheless, in Prague Zeman received only 31%, he lost voting in Brno, Plzen, Liberec and others. However, rural communities voted for Zeman, his rudeness and hard line policy.

For Russia, Zeman’s success is pleasant news. His influence should not be overestimated, since the Czech policy depends mainly on the government, which so far supports the sanctions against Russia. Besides, the president will hardly spoil relations with the EU and NATO for Russia. Due to Zeman’s success, we will have politician in Europe who will be insisting on viewpoints more favorable to us. Russia could hardly influence the voting for the Czech president, but it can enjoy the outcomes at full.

Vadim Trukhachev, Candidate of Science (History)

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