PRAGUE – The incumbent head of state of the Czech Republic won the first round of presidential elections on Saturday with 39 percent of the ballots, but his lack of an absolute majority means he must face a runoff against the second-place finisher.
President Milos Zeman, a euroskeptic, outspoken critic of migration to Europe from Muslim countries and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, will face off on Jan. 26-27 against liberal centrist Jiri Drahos, a 68-year-old chemist and former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences who garnered 26.3 percent of ballots among a crowded field of candidates.
Drahos supports the Czech Republic’s continued membership in the European Union, although like Zeman and most of Czech society he opposes mandatory EU quotas for the distribution of asylum seekers.
The 73-year-old incumbent, whose tenure has been marked by a gradual slide from mild pro-Europeanism to euroskepticism, won in all regions of the country except the capital, Prague, where Drahos prevailed.
He confirmed Saturday that he would square off in debates with Drahos ahead of the runoff, after opting not to do so prior to the first round of balloting.
“I’ll face off against Drahos. There are a lot of issues of interest to citizens, not only immigration and pensions. We need to discuss a whole spectrum of issues and not reduce things to just one,” said Zeman, who is seeking a second five-year term.
The president was a controversial figure during his first term, occasionally using vulgar language, joking with Putin about “liquidating” journalists, taking issue with the European Union’s migrant quotas and branding the refugee crisis an “organized invasion.”
Zeman also has taken issue with EU sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis and welcomed the contentious decision by US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of relocating Washington’s embassy in the Jewish state from Tel Aviv to the Holy City.
Unlike in neighboring countries such as Austria, where the president has a more symbolic role, the Czech head of state does possess some political responsibility and signs off on legislation alongside the prime minister, who is head of government.