Zeman brings prestige, experience and concerns to Czech presidency

By Jiang Li Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/4 22:33:39

Two rounds of presidential elections in the Czech Republic were held in mid and late January, with President Milos Zeman narrowly defeating pro-EU academic Jiri Drahos.

Zeman is a controversial figure both in Czech and the EU given his political stand, way of acting and his character. His narrow re-election is closely associated with the candidates of the country's prime minister, the composition of the new government, the country's future foreign policies and its status in the EU. 

After the first round of vote, most of the candidates who failed to advance to the second round expressed support for Zeman's rival Drahos. Czech society was divided into two camps - one supporting Zeman and the other opposing him. Eventually, Zeman secured victory by taking 51.4 percent of the vote with voter turnout at 66.6 percent, the highest since parliamentary elections in 1998.

There are a number of reasons why the 73-year-old president was re-elected. Zeman is a senior politician in Czech and maintains a high level of prestige. Since the Czech Republic became independent in 1993, Zeman has served as leader of the Social Democratic Party, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies of the Parliament, prime minister of a minority government and the first directly elected president. He has exerted profound influence on the country's political process. Zeman listens to public opinion and cares about people's livelihoods. During his first term as president, he paid regular visits to different regions to experience people's lives firsthand. In November last year, he got on the ballot by collecting the required number of citizens' signatures (the minimum was 100,000 verified signatures).

Zeman's clear political stand and decisive manner is also seen as bringing certainty to his people. In the face of pressures from globalization and security threats from the refugee influx, older, poorly-educated and low-income voters who live in remote areas believe Zeman can bring them security and prosperity.

Zeman is also a sharp strategist with superb election skills. He refused to hold public discussions with other candidates prior to the first round of vote. Before the second round, he had debates with Drahos on TV twice and displayed his political wisdom and refinement. He softened his tone on the EU and said he had played an important role during the negotiation process of Czech Republic joining the EU. Zeman also said if were to lose the election, he would unconditionally appoint the leader of the ANO 2011 political movement Andrej Babis as the country's prime minister before stepping down, a promise that helped secure support from the party. Compared with five years ago, Zeman has garnered more public support.

As Zeman has been re-elected, his status in Czech Republic's political realm will be solidified. Domestically, he will shed influence on the composition of the new government. The legislative elections in October 2017 saw Babis' party ANO 2011 emerge as the strongest party in parliament's lower chamber. But Babis has been formally charged with fraud, leaving the party in a difficult position to find a coalition partner.

On January 16, Babis' new minority government failed to win a mandatory confidence vote in the lower house of Parliament. Before the second-round vote for president, Zeman asked Babis to try a second time to form a new government. The re-election of Zeman means Babis will now have more time to negotiate with other political parties in the hope of finding a ruling partner.

As for foreign policies, Zeman advocates multi-faceted diplomacy and economic diplomacy. He believes that the Czech Republic, as a member of the EU and NATO, should not only keep friendly relations with member states of the two blocs, but also engage in economic cooperation with other major powers.

As most Czechs refuse to accept refugees and the euro, the president will likely continue to object the EU's refugee quota scheme and insist Greece leave the eurozone before the Czech Republic enters the union. Against the backdrop of a multi-speed Europe and EU reforms proposed by France and Germany, Czech is not going to join the EU core any time soon.

Meanwhile, Zeman will continue to maintain friendly ties with Russia and China. He will oppose the EU's economic sanction on Russia as usual and push forward Sino-Czech relations within the framework of the Chinese-European Partnership for Development, the 16+1 initiative of cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries and the Belt and Road initiative.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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