The Czech presidential elections: A tale of two populisms?

by Sean Hanley

Zeman putin

President Miloš Zeman with President Vladimir Putin, 2017. Image: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons

This article has been developed from a talk given to the Cambridge Central and Eastern European European Forum at Cambridge University

The opinion polls were right about one thing: The second-round run-off for the Czech presidency on 26–27 January was a close contest.

But, contrary to what most polls had forecast, it was sitting President, Miloš Zeman, who claimed a narrow victory, beating his independent opponent, Jiří Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, by 51.4% to 48.6%.

In their own way, both candidates were signs of the populist times – and proof that populism need not just take the form of outsider parties emerging from the fringes (although, in billionaire prime minister designate Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement, or the radical-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping of Tomio Okamura, the Czech Republic has these too).

Of the two presidential contenders in the run-off, Zeman was the more textbook populist. Since coming out of political retirement in 2009, the former Social Democrat prime minister – who claims to speak for the ‘bottom 10 million’ in a country with a population of 10.56 million  –  has combined a penchant for left-wing economics with outspokenly nationalistic and illiberal stances on migration and European affairs.

Although the European refugee crisis of 2015–16 had little impact on the Czech Republic and the country’s Muslim population numbers, which are in the low thousands, Zeman has warned of a ‘tsunami’ of bogus refugees threatening Czech national identity and security. While backing membership of the EU, Zeman has also spoken out against it as too big, bureaucratic and politically correct – going so far as to advocate a referendum on Czexit – and, his personal presidential foreign policy leans heavily towards Russia. He would like sanctions scrapped and Russian sovereignty over Crimea recognised. Predictably, in the run-up to the November 2016 elections, he was the only EU head of state to endorse Donald Trump, whose plainspokenness and tough line on immigration he admires.

Zeman’s core electorate was a similar coalition of those left out or ‘left behind’ by economic prosperity, seen in political contests elsewhere. In both the first and second rounds, the sitting president brought together a coalition of predominantly older, poorer, less well-educated voters living in smaller towns or regions with multiple social problems, such as Northern Bohemia or Moravia-Silesia. In party-political terms, Communist, Social Democrat and far-right voters all heavily backed Zeman – as did supporters of Andrej Babiš’ ANO movement, for whom a Zeman victory was the best guarantee that their party’s leader would get a second chance to form a government if his minority administration floundered.

While Zeman’s well-catalogued faux pas as president – appearing drunk at a state occasion in 2013 or dropping vulgarities into broadcasts or interviews – tarnished his reputation in the eyes of urban liberal voters and international observers, it did little to dent his core support. For Zeman voters, focus groups suggested, their candidate appeared a flawed but authentic champion of ordinary people and Czech interests, who would stick up for them against elites in both Prague and Brussels.

Echoes of Trump and Brexit

Zeman’s eventual winning strategy also had echoes of Trump and Brexit. For a long period, the presidential campaign – overshadowed by October’s parliamentary election and its political fallout – was a non-event. Indeed, in Zeman’s case, deliberately so: until the first round of voting, the president avoided interviews and TV debates, claiming not be campaigning because his record spoke for itself. Critics suspected that 73-year-old Zeman’s poor health (he suffers from diabetes and mobility problems) might be the real reason, although others noted that he had managed a full programme of official visits to provincial towns and cities during 2017.

However, following a disappointing first-round result (Zeman’s 38.6% left him with a lot of ground to make up), the under-the-radar campaign was dropped for a much more combative and aggressive one, targeting his second-round opponent Drahoš. Pro-Zeman billboards now urged voters to reject the 68-year-old career scientist and academic as a novice with irresponsible liberal views, who would open the Czech Republic up to uncontrolled immigration and could not be trusted to watch over the country’s national interests. An unwell looking Zeman hammered home the same message in two head-to-head television debates with Drahoš.

Despite not producing the kind of killer put-down that had wrongfooted his 2013 opponent, Karel Schwarzenberg, or matching the polish of his 2013 advertising campaign, Zeman’s return to the attack in the second round proved enough. The key to the political turnaround, as for the Brexit and Trump campaigns, was to mobilise small, previously passive groups of voters, who could tip the balance: turnout in the second-round run-off was up across the Czech Republic – rising from 61.9% to 66.6% – but it rose most strikingly in Zeman-supporting areas. A plausible interpretation, especially given Zeman’s narrower than expected defeat in many provincial cities, is that frustrated, poorer, younger voters switched from abstaining to turning out to back the president.

Another populism?

Paradoxically, Zeman’s opponent, Jiří Drahoš, in a certain sense represented another brand of populism: the vision of a non-politician with decency and gravitas, but without ties to parties or professional politics, transcending party-political differences and stepping in to keep the Czech Republic anchored in Western democratic structures. This drew on the traditional stereotype of the Czech(oslovak) president as a detached intellectual or scholar standing above party politics to watch over the nation.  Reversing the populist framing, Drahoš’ campaign depicted him as a man with strong family and community ties, in touch with average Czechs and motivated by patriotic concern for the future of his country. Zeman, Drahoš’ supporters argued, was a career politician of 25 years standing backed by a cabal of shady Russian-linked business interests.

Drahoš was far from the only challenger to Zeman to pitch his candidacy in these terms. He had emerged from a first-round field which, except for two minor party candidates and the former prime minister and ex-leader of the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), Mirek Topolánek, now running as independent, consisted of figures from outside party politics.

Most, like Drahoš, had had successful, and sometimes distinguished, careers in business, public administration, diplomacy or the charity sector. Almost all were running on a similar, but vague, platform of being patriotic, pro-European figures who could perform the role of head of state in a consensual, non-partisan way with gravitas, dignity and reliability, which Miloš Zeman, sometimes very obviously, lacked. Tellingly, five of Drahoš’ seven fellow challengers immediately endorsed him in the second round.

The proliferation of independent candidates was, however, as much about political strategy as cultural stereotypes. Drahoš and much of the rest of the field were, in part, trying to repeat the success that non-partisan challengers had enjoyed in presidential elections against well-entrenched nationalistic left-wing candidates elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the 2014 presidential elections in Slovakia, for example, the businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska came from behind to overhaul Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, in the second round run-off. Similarly, in the same year in Romania’s presidential poll, Klaus Iohannis, best-known as a local politician and leader of a tiny German minority grouping, beat Social Democrat prime minister, Victor Ponta.

Post-mortems on Drahoš and the his campaign began almost immediately: the candidate, critics objected, had been too professorial and uncharismatic; there had been too little grassroots mobilisation or too little involvement by NGOs; his hedging and vague centrism had not offered a compelling liberal vision for Czechia, relying instead on Zeman’s toxicity for many parts of the electorate. In truth, however, Drahoš’ performance was a creditable one, outstripping the combined support for parties hostile to Zeman in the October 2017 parliamentary election and the vote for Zeman’s 2013 challenger, Karel Schwarzenberg.

Parties over?

However, even if Drahoš had displaced the ailing Zeman as Czech head of state, the underlying story of the presidential election would be that Czech democracy is continuing to metamorphose, shifting away from a stable, if corrupt, pattern of ‘standard’ parties emulating West European models and moving into more uncertain territory.

Knowing they lacked broad appeal, most parties chose not to run their own presidential candidates and were relegated to the role of second-round endorsers. The one party that might have run a popular candidate, Andrej Babiš’ ANO, opted not to, in order to give Zeman a free run and ensure that a president favourable to Babiš would smooth its way into government.

However, Zeman’s own political trajectory is also revealing.  His role as an illiberal, presidential tribune of the people, bolstered by the support of Communists and the radical right, is a far cry from his political beginnings. A technocrat, who warned Czech voters of the need for painful reforms in the early 1990s, he later joined and became leader of the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), building the party up into the main force on the Czech left. As prime minister (1998–2002), he headed a government that did much to keep the Czech Republic on track for EU accession in 2004.

Above all, however, in ensuring that the presidential election was, in effect, a referendum about his controversial first term – and foregrounding the phantom menace of immigration – Zeman helped divert attention away from bigger issues facing the Czech Republic. In the run-up to Brexit and, partly in response to the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Poland and Hungary, key EU Member States are beginning to contemplate the formation of a more tightly integrated EU inner core, centring on the eurozone.

While Czech politicians would like to duck the issue – and to keep fudging a decision on adopting the euro – they may have little choice but to confront it. If they do, they will need to face down a public that has, since the eurozone crisis, set its face decisively against the single currency and participating in deeper integration. At 54%, according to a recent poll, Czech support even for membership of the EU is easily the lowest in the Visegrad Group.

While it sent important signals about the political mood and direction of the country, the Czech presidential contest – between two insiders posing as political outsiders, offering different variants of the populist grand narrative of the people versus the elites – did nothing to address them.

About the author

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Sean Hanley is Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and the author of 'The New Right in the New Europe: Czech transformation and right-wing politics' (Routledge 2007). He blogs on 'politics, Central and Eastern Europe and suburban life' at
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