Pro-Russia Incumbent Wins Czech Presidential Election

The pro-Russian Incumbent Milos Zeman greets spectators while claiming victory in the Czech presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

The Czech Republic’s pro-Russia president won a second five-year term Saturday after beating a political newcomer viewed as more Western-oriented in a runoff vote.

President Milos Zeman’s victory confirmed the political direction set during the country’s parliamentary election, the result of which was seen as part of an anti-establishment wave sweeping Western democracies.

Zeman is a close ally of populist billionaire Andrej Babis, whose ANO (YES) movement scored a landslide victory in the October election. With the two men in charge, the Czech Republic is likely to become more critical of European Union policies on issues such as immigration.

“We can expect the government to be less pro-Western than the previous government,” Josef Mlejnek, a scholar of democracy and Central Europe at Prague’s Charles University said.

With all the votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said Zeman received 51.4 percent of the vote during the two-day runoff election.

His opponent, former Czech Academy of Sciences head Jiri Drahos, whose views are closer to the European mainstream, garnered 48.6 percent.

The Czech Constitution limits presidents to two terms. Appearing before supporters Saturday, Zeman, 73, called his win “my last political victory” and said “no political loss will follow.”

He pledged “to work as I have worked so far.”

Drahos conceded defeat and congratulated Zeman on Saturday afternoon. The career scientist and chemistry professor said he planned to stay in politics, but did not provide details.

“It’s not over,” Drahos said.

Zeman, a veteran of Czech politics and former left-wing prime minister, won his first term in 2013 during the Czech Republic’s first presidential election decided by voters, not lawmakers.

Since then, he has divided the nation with his pro-Russia stance, support for closer ties with China, and strong anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Zeman was one of the few European leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the White House. He also has proposed a referendum on the Czech Republic’s membership in the European Union like the one held in Britain.

Drahos, 68, who led the Academy of Sciences from 2009 until last year, campaigned on maintaining the country’s ties to the EU and NATO. He ran unaffiliated with a political party.

One of the Czech president’s key responsibilities is picking the prime minister after a general election, power that was on display in the days before the runoff election.

The government led by Babis resigned Wednesday after failing to win a confidence vote. Zeman immediately asked Babis to try again.

The two men both have criticized EU sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea.

The president also appoints members of the Central Bank board and selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.

Otherwise, the president has little direct executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

Zeman is considered a leading pro-Russian voice in EU politics. His views on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, as well as Europe’s migrant crisis, diverge sharply from the European mainstream. He called Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula irreversible.

“This policy of Zeman is unlikely to change,” Charles University’s Mlejnek said.

The Czech president also has linked extremist attacks in Europe to the ongoing influx of newcomers, called the immigration wave an “organized invasion” and repeatedly said that Islam is incompatible with European culture.

Those views won him Babis’ support, as well as backing from the most anti-Muslim, anti-EU party in the Czech Republic — Freedom and Direct Democracy — and the far-left Communist Party.

“It’s an excellent result,” Freedom and Direct Democracy chairman Tomio Okamura said of Zeman’s re-election.

Zeman has exploited widespread fear of migration among Czechs and worked to portray Drahos as someone who would welcome migrants.

A group of Zeman’s supporters commissioned billboards and newspaper ads that called on citizens to “Stop Migrants and Drahos,” adding “This is our land! Vote Zeman!”

Some pro-Russian websites spread fake news about Drahos during the campaign, according to the Prague Security Studies Institute, a respected think tank.

The false information alleged that he cooperated with the Communist-era secret police and was willing to accept an EU plan to redistribute asylum-seekers among member countries, the institute said.

Zeman is the Czech Republic’s third president, after Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, since the country and Slovakia were created from Czechoslovakia in 1993.

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