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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Czechs to pick president, caught between a scientist and a Trump-supporter

President post serves as an influential voice in public debate, despite being a largely ceremonial role 

People vote at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Prague. Rene Volfik / Reuters
People vote at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Prague. Rene Volfik / Reuters

The Czech Republic is deciding whether to re-elect pro-Russian president Milos Zeman for a second term or replace him with career academic Jiri Drahos, who has pledged to strengthen the country’s ties with its allies in the European Union and NATO.

Mr Zeman, 73, is a supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin and a fan of US president Donald Trump. He campaigned by warning against Muslim migrants in a country with tiny religious minorities. His challenger, a 68-year-old chemistry professor, vowed to “return dignity” to the post, a reference to Mr Zeman’s frequent clashes with media and political rivals.

Opinion polls signaled a close race before the two-day runoff. Voting will resume at 8 am and last until 2 pm on Saturday, with results expected in the afternoon.

The Czech Republic boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU, the lowest unemployment in the bloc and the highest living standards among its post-communist members. Still, Mr Zeman has tapped anti-establishment sentiment, boosting populist politicians that challenged the EU’s liberal, multi-cultural values. While the president has a largely ceremonial role, the post serves as an influential voice in public debate.

“Czech society is very divided,” said Balazs Jarabik, a scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The urban elites should show a bit more understanding toward rural voters. They really do have totally different possibilities. And the differences are only growing.”

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Read more:

Pro-Russia Czech president faces run-off against EU supporter

Czechs to elect new president amid Russian meddling concerns

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While most executive powers lie with the government, the president names the prime minister, appoints central bankers and commands the military. The winner of the vote may also influence a complicated political situation after billionaire Premier Andrej Babis’s minority administration was forced to resign when it failed to win approval from lawmakers earlier this month. Mr Zeman has already pledged to give Mr Babis a second chance to form a cabinet regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. Mr Babis and his ANO party endorsed the incumbent before the presidential election.

Mr Zeman used his first term to carve out a stronger role for the post via what he calls a “creative interpretation” of the constitution. Critics say his pro-Russian and anti-migrant rhetoric, jokes about killing journalists, vegetarians and teetotalers and his support of extremist political forces including a far-right party that advocates leaving the EU, have undermined the authority of the presidency.

Mr Zeman calls himself a euro-federalist, but he also suggested that the Czech Republic should hold a Brexit-style referendum to leave the EU. He said he’d vote to stay in although people should have a choice.

During the campaign, the incumbent accused Mr Drahos of being soft on refugees. His supporters ran a full-page add in Pravo newspaper on Thursday that said “Stop the migrants and Drahos. This country is ours.”

While Mr Drahos said the Czech Republic “can handle” some 2,600 refugees, he also opposes the EU’s quotas for migrants.