Czech voters in the country’s hardscrabble heartland voted on Saturday to give the populist pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman a second five-year term in the East European country’s largely ceremonial role as president.
The 73-year-old Zeman doubled down on his bombastic populism and anti-immigration stance that bears an uncanny resemblance to US President Donald Trump to attack the intellectual pro-European Prague elites.
Using the same condescending tone that Trump employed during his successful bid for the White House, Zeman was able to mobilise his base and gain a narrow win over his challenger, Jiri Drahos, a liberal academic with no prior experience in public office.
The final tallied showed that Zeman won the runoff ballot with 51.36 percent of the vote compared to 48.63 percent for the pro-EU Drahos.
Around 8.4 million Czechs were eligible to vote in the poll, which was required after no candidate won a majority in the first round of voting on January 12 . Turnout was high, with more than 66 percent of registered voters casting their ballots.
Voicing staunch anti-migrant views, denigrating Muslims, and cultivating warm ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Zeman is no stranger to controversy. He has criticised his Western allies’ approach to relations with Moscow and has sought to distance himself from his European colleagues at a time when many across the continent fear that the Kremlin is actively meddling in Western elections and internal affairs.
Zeman’s views on the conflict in eastern Ukraine diverge sharply from the European mainstream. He has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea “irreversible” and has frequently spoken out against the crippling sanctions that were imposed by Washington and Brussels in the wake of Moscow’s illegal seizure of the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
Putin sent a congratulatory note to Zeman saying “ he had showcased high authority as an experienced and responsible politician who will put the Czech people’s interests and aspirations to life.”
In addition to being an avowed admirer of Putin, Zeman has also called for a referendum on the country’s membership of both the European Union and NATO, while also calling for closer ties with China.
Although he does not have the constitutional authority to call for a referendum, Zeman was quoted as saying that he personally opposed the Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the European Union, but would do everything he could to allow Czech voters the right to express themselves regarding the EU and NATO.
Drahos, who deemed Russia a majority security threat because of Moscow’s worldview that NATO is an adversary, was attacked by Zeman as lacking political experience, an argument that was considered Drahos’s main handicap in the eyes of many voters.