29 January, 2018
Pro-European Union academic Jiri Drahos is trying to unseat anti-immigration political veteran Milos Zeman, who has sought closer relations with Russian Federation and China, in a tight run-off in the Czech presidential election that started on Friday.
Prime minister Andrej Babiš, a billionaire businessman who has ruled as a caretaker since his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in parliament last week, backed Zeman.
Meanwhile, Drahos conceded his defeat in the second round of the presidential elections and congratulated Zeman on his victory. Drahos is a soft-spoken chemistry professor. He calls himself a federalist and supports membership of the European Union while also favouring holding an in-or-out referendum, like the one that led to Britain's impending exit.
The Kremlin was quick to offer its congratulations in a statement, saying that "Vladimir Putin emphasised Russia's appreciation for Mr. Zeman's stance favouring friendly Russian-Czech relations". Voter turnout was 66.6%.
Political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP the results reflected the "very deep polarization" of Czech society which is "split down the middle" along rural-urban and populist-liberal lines, echoing divisions elsewhere in Europe and in the US. Zeman has taken a tough stance on immigration and backed Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.
And whether he liked it or not, 73-year-old Zeman's health and ability to continue for another full five year term had been an issue although the president's doctors declared on the eve of the campaign that he had no major health issues.
Both Zeman and Drahoš have rejected the EU's refugee quotas, but unlike Zeman, Drahoš has said his country should differentiate between economic migrants and war refugees and follow the bloc's asylum procedures.
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Zeman has exploited widespread fear of migration among Czechs and worked to portray Drahos as someone who would welcome migrants.
Early results had tilted towards Zeman, who drew strong support from smaller districts outside cities that report quickly.
The pro-European Drahos had also opposed the European Union quota system but had insisted the Czech Republic was strong enough to accept its allotted 2,600 refugees. He called Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula irreversible.
Zeman's critics say his efforts to strengthen ties with Russian Federation and China have undermined Czech relations with western allies.
"It's important for us, for jobs; our country is at the heart of Europe but we can't go in just one direction", he said in Prague. His challenger for the largely ceremonial post, 68-year-old chemistry professor Jiri Drahos, pledged to anchor the nation of 10.6 million more firmly in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
The four other top candidates - who accounted for 32.5% of the vote - are now urging voters to back Drahos, so the final outcome is likely to be tight.
His position also allows him to appoint central bank board members and judges.