The president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, won reelection in late January with 51.5 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating challenger Jiří Drahoš. Zeman secured a far narrower margin than in his first victory, but the new term confirms his legacy as one of the country’s most successful — and divisive — politicians since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.
Like most recent elections in Europe, observers cast the Czech vote as a fight between a populist and a liberal, a characterization that not only worked against any meaningful understanding of the election but also played entirely into Zeman’s hands. Zeman has spent five years establishing himself as a straight-talking man of the people who stands up against the Prague-café elites. Far too many of his opponents decided to engage with, rather than oppose, this narrative.
Zeman’s victory seemed like a foregone conclusion. He’s incredibly popular, despite — or perhaps because of — a number of very public, very embarrassing incidents and his pugilistic, often vulgar, image. Indeed, it was so clear that he would progress to the second round, he barely participated in the first.
As a result, the other candidates appeared in a series of lopsided TV debates, in which an assortment of diplomats, washed-up politicians, businessmen, and academics (all male) vied for second place. Despite his absence, the president remained a constant presence.
The other candidates printed posters with (largely banal) slogans; the incumbent’s read “Zeman again,” with an image of his grinning head superimposed on Prague Castle. The president didn’t campaign at all, leaving supporting organizations — whose funding sources remain murky — to handle everything.
In the first round, he won 38 percent. Drahoš received 27 percent, and three other anti-Zeman candidates claimed about 10 percent each. These results raised the possibility of a defeat, so Zeman began acting like an election was actually happening and secured victory.
Zeman defies easy description. The Guardian’s report on his triumph initially called him “pro-Russian” but changed it overnight to “far right.” Other observers have nicknamed him the European Trump. Some superficial comparisons with his American counterpart do exist: both are prone to controversial political outbursts and both love trolling liberal opinion. They show disdain for the media, which in turn has raised questions about each man’s health and mental fitness.
But this comparison only goes so far. Zeman is very much a political insider, a fixture in Czech politics since the Velvet Revolution. He participated in the anticommunist Civic Forum and joined the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly in 1990. He helped rebuild the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), which he joined in 1992, and he served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002. He ran for president in 2003, but Václav Klaus won thanks to divisions in the party. Zeman never fully forgave the leadership, and, in 2009, he founded the Party of Civic Rights, which has yet to win any seats in parliament. Nevertheless, Zeman returned to national politics with a bang in 2013, when he won the first directly elected presidential race.
Indeed, Zeman’s left-wing background and the connections he retains with individual Social Democrats contribute to the confusion over his real politics. By now, “far right” fits best.
His public pronouncements, particularly on Islam and migration, echo those of the traditional far right, though he often uses even less varnished terms than Marine Le Pen or Alternative for Germany. Zeman has forged tight links with the organized right, most notably with Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), a virulently anti-Islam party that won twenty-two seats in November’s parliamentary election.
Its leader, Tomio Okamura, appeared with Zeman during the latter’s acceptance speech, and the new president name-checked Okamura in response to a question about forming a new government. This seems like a public acknowledgement of Okamura’s place in Zeman’s inner circle, confirming that an old man prone to politically incorrect outbursts now firmly belongs in the camp of the European right.
Yet the left-right question in Czech politics often transforms into a different division: East versus West. Zeman has certainly earned his pro-Russian label. He’s moved closer to the Putin regime, and some of his advisers are particularly pro-Kremlin. The lack of transparency around his election campaign has led some to suggest that he has Russian funding — accusations that frequently shade into conspiracy theory.
He has also tried to develop a stronger relationship with China, and he caused a minor political crisis two years ago when he rescinded an award after the recipient’s nephew, the cultural minister, met with the Dalai Lama.
Zeman thus appears as firmly Eastern-looking in a country where such questions are particularly fraught. Prague sits west of Vienna, and many Czechs bridle at being described as Eastern European, insisting that they are “more like Germans than Slavs.”As a result, this election seemed like a referendum between East and West: in the runup, I passed a statue of a Red Army general that had been plastered with Drahoš posters and tagged “Go West.”
Zeman’s opponents love to reduce Czech politics to a battle between Russophiles and Russophobes, but this analysis simply replaces one chauvinism with another and ultimately lets him off the hook.
The Professor and the People
For all this angst, the president of the Czech Republic occupies a largely symbolic and ceremonial position. He can veto parliamentary decisions, but he can’t act independently on most important questions, including foreign policy. Most of Zeman’s interactions with China and Russia are little more than diplomatic trade missions — albeit lucrative ones. He has very little decision-making power over many of the issues he expounds on publicly.
Nevertheless, this election had the highest turnout since 1998, with 66.6 percent. On the one hand, the big numbers reflect citizens’ desire to rebalance politics following the shock of November’s parliamentary elections. On the other, it underlines the fact that the role of president occupies a disproportionate place in the Czech imagination.
This emphasis was formed by past presidents, most prominently Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the academic philosopher who became the first president of Czechoslovakia. Modern Czechs still adore Masaryk, though for quite different reasons. Some see him as a bastion of liberal, Western values during the interwar period, while others honor his commitment to national independence and regional solidarity.
Václav Havel, the poet-dissident who became the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, seemed to inherit Masaryk’s committed, moralizing, but resolutely liberal politics. Some deify Havel’s symbolic and intellectual purity, but many now reject his moralism as a sign of weakness and idealism.
The idea of an intellectual president still appeals to voters in a country where academic titles and qualifications count for a great deal. This tradition helps explain why Zeman’s rejection of these trappings — his smoking, drinking, and liberal use of insults and profanities — rubs people the wrong way. This attitude contains a deep strain of elitism, which begins with the suggestion that Zeman is not respectable but easily slips into criticizing his voters, as if the fact that Zeman talks like and has won support from ordinary people is reason enough to dislike him. The fact that Zeman is the first directly elected president feeds into this anti-populist narrative — give the people a choice, and they elect a buffoon.
Such elitism ran through much of the commentary around the election. The media described Zeman’s voters as post-communist relics, rooted in the past and terrified of a changing world. In contrast, his opponents are modern, Western, and outward looking.
Some of this has merit: Zeman’s strongest support comes from smaller towns and rural areas — though he won Ostrava, the third-largest city in the country — and his voters tend to be older and less educated. But dividing society into enlightened Western subjects and post-communist dinosaurs blocks both a clear analysis of the country’s political situation and any hope of changing it. These categories do more to flatter Zeman’s opponents than to help understand what motivates his supporters.
As a former academic (albeit a chemist rather than philosopher), Drahoš based his authority on the professor-president tradition. His platform exemplified measured, liberal prevarication. He supported calls to loosen the country’s strict Austro-Hungarian education system, but he rejected giving students too much freedom. He would not stop lesbian and gay couples from adopting children but thought that the traditional family was best and that there was not yet enough evidence of the long-term effects of gay adoption to unequivocally support it. The only issues he seemed to certain about were that his country should play a greater role in NATO, the European Union should strengthen its borders, and the Czech Republic should not accept its quota of refugees.
This final issue became the dominant question as the campaign burst into life in the last week. The debate focused entirely on “immigrants,” which even liberal commentators use interchangeably with “refugees” and “Muslims.” It is not uncommon to hear claims such as “there are only twelve immigrants in the Czech Republic,” referring only to Syrian refugees. Of course, plenty of Russian, Ukrainian, Slovak, and Vietnamese migrants live in the Czech Republic, not to mention the expats who staff the Prague offices of international corporations, but these people disappeared from the debate.
Zeman and his supporters painted Drahoš as pro-refugee, while Drahoš chose to attack from the right, claiming that he alone could come to an agreement with the European Union on refugee quotas. This miscalculation led to a billboard campaign from Zeman’s camp that declared: “Say no to immigrants and Drahoš, this land is ours.” Instead of highlighting a defense of migrants and refugees as a key point of differentiation, Drahoš chose to fight on Zeman’s home territory and lost.
Though he came closer than Zeman’s last opponent, Drahoš simply did not get enough votes. He won a convincing majority in Prague and slimmer majorities in other cities and the Prague suburbs, but he lost many regions decisively. Moreover, the assumption that a high turnout would favor him proved incorrect.
We shouldn’t underplay the role of conservatism and rising xenophobia in Zeman’s victory, but the results also represent a failure of a strategy: Drahoš’s campaign focused too much on the narrative of the professor against the populist. For too many on both sides, this slipped into the professor versus the people, a frame that could only benefit Zeman.
In his victory speech, Zeman described this as his final election, in tones that made it sound more like a retirement announcement. He may have been more interested in winning than in governing for five years. He could now begin one of his frequent absences from public life — one of which led to rumors of his death earlier this year.
Regardless, having built his success on the back of vicious anti-migrant rhetoric, he can hardly be expected to stop his racist and xenophobic outbursts, which will only embolden the growing far right. Internationally, the European Union will have to deal with a trenchant, if not particularly coherent, critic, while Trump can count on another friend in the east.
More significantly, though, the liberal nightmare of a Zeman presidency and Babiš premiership has almost come true.
Despite winning the most seats in November’s parliamentary elections, Babiš’s party ANO has yet to form a permanent government. When Babiš burst onto the political scene in 2011, he promised to run government like a business. Many describe him as a populist, but technocrat fits better. He has built an alliance of convenience with Zeman in recent years, but their agendas remain quite different.
In December, Zeman gave Babiš six weeks to form a provisional government and enter coalition talks with other parties. Last week these talks were officially declared a failure, and Zeman invited Babiš to try again. Many of the established parties refuse to work with him, and the ones that participated in the talks expressed frustration at the negotiations, suggesting they were deliberately unproductive. Perhaps all sides were waiting to see what would happen to Zeman.
Now they have their answer. ANO, the SPD, and what remains of the ČSSD after its bruising election defeat have the numbers to form a majority. Such a coalition would reflect Zeman’s own base of support fairly accurately, and Milan Chovanec, the ČSSD’s interim leader, appeared alongside Okamura at Zeman’s acceptance speech, signaling the president’s endorsement of both men.
If this takes place, it will only deepen the ČSSD’s existential crisis, disgusting sections of its base and possibly leading to its suspension from the Party of European Socialists.
But it isn’t clear that this is what Babiš wants. In an interview last December, he attempted to distinguish himself from the SPD, describing them as “extremist” and warning that if the European Union did not change its ways their support would only increase.
Some ANO members have floated the idea of forming a coalition with the Communist Party, thereby ending its near thirty-year exclusion from government. This would provoke existential angst of a different kind, and it is unlikely that it would actually produce a more left-leaning government.
If this second round of coalition talks fails, the constitution allows for a third attempt. Perhaps then Babiš will put forward an alternative prime minister and remain behind the scenes.
Hopefully, Zeman’s mainstream opponents will learn from this election: you cannot build a majority among the people while sneering at them; you cannot reduce politics to compass points; you cannot win an election on the subtle distinction between liberal and racist migration controls.
But we shouldn’t hold our breath. For those who want to resist the rising far right and develop an emancipatory left, this election did not change a great deal.
It is often cliché to say that real politics happens in streets, communities, and workplaces, not in symbolic battles over who occupies the presidential palace. With regard to this election, though, the cliché fits. Whatever the outcome, the Czech left would still have to develop political identities that go beyond East versus West, modernist versus traditionalist, liberal versus populist, and truly articulate working-class politics.