On January 12 and 13, 2018, the first round of the presidential election was held in the Czech Republic. The President is elected for five years. Since none of the nine candidates won an absolute majority, the second round of elections will be held on January 26 and 27. Miloš Zeman (born in 1944), the current President of the country, won the largest number of votes (almost 2 million, or 38.6%). His opponent in the second round will be a man without any political experience. Jiří Drahoš (born in 1949) is a chemistry professor and a former head of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic who received 1.37 million votes (26.6%).
According to the polls, Zeman’s typical voter is a person over 60 with primary or secondary education living in a town or village with a population of up to 5,000 people. Drahoš, on the contrary, is mainly supported by educated residents of large cities.
Zeman is known as one of the most pro-Russian presidents of Europe. He recites Kremlin propaganda talking points, consistently calling the hostilities in the east of Ukraine a “civil war” and brushing off any Russian involvement. Zeman did not change his rhetoric even in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Zeman’s speech in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in October 2017 was especially notable. In it, he called the annexation of Crimea by Russia “a fait accompli” and suggested a compensation to Ukraine to get it over and done.
As for the contenders, there were a few candidates running for the post with similar campaign promises to those of Jiří Drahoš: Pavel Fischer, a former diplomat and an employee of the Václav Havel administration who won 10.2% of the vote, entrepreneur and songwriter Michal Horáček (9.2%), medical researcher Marek Hilšer (8.8%), and Mirek Topolánek, former Prime Minister and leader of the Civic Democratic Party (4.3 %). All the contenders expressed disagreement with the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policies of Zeman, and were also outraged by his deliberate disrespect for democratic values and for the Constitution. All of them promised to improve political culture and work to mend the rift in the highly polarized society.
All the contenders to the incumbent president united in a democratic bloc before the elections and declared their support to one of them who would eventually make it to the second round. After the announcement of the results of the first round they stuck to their agreement and called on their voters to vote for Drahoš in the second round, with Horáček and Hilšer even offering to take an active part in his campaign.
From a purely mathematical standpoint, Drahoš looks like a sure winner of the second round. However, election mathematics is not so linear. As polls show, not all voters of the candidates who did not pass into the second round are prepared to respond to their appeal. In particular, about 20% of Topolánek’s voters, 11-13 % of Hilšer’s, 7-9 % of Fischer’s and Horáček’s are going to vote for Zeman in the second round. From 3 to 5% of other voters are likely to do the same.
According to sociologists, Drahoš is guaranteed to receive the votes of 900,000 voters of other candidates in the second round, with Zeman getting 180,000. The overall score looks more likely in favor of Drahoš, but with a very slim margin of about 1-2 % (or 60-100 thousand votes). This means that the votes of the swing voters, as well as those who did not vote in the first round, will be decisive.
This presidential election is thought to be the most important in the Czech Republic in the past 25 years. The situation in the society has been significantly influenced by the results of the parliamentary elections in October 2017, when for the first time after the “velvet revolution” of 1989, non-systemic and undemocratic parties won the majority.
In particular, almost 30% of the votes went to the ANO Movement [ANO stands for Akce nespokojených občanů, that is, the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens – editor’s note]. In effect, it is a private party of Andrej Babiš, a billionaire of Slovak origin. He has control not only over a number of industrial enterprises, but also over some mainstream media, and this allows him to significantly influence the public opinion. Babiš built his electoral campaign on the slogans of fighting corruption and embezzlement of state property, placing the blame on the mainstream parties of the “old system”.
Almost 11% of the votes were received by the recently created pro-Kremlin movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (SPD) led by Tomio Okamura, which attracted voters with populist anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric, as well as a promise to hold referendums on any issues, including the withdrawal from the EU and NATO.
Communists received 7.7% (however, this is the poorest result of the Czech Communist Party for the entire period of its existence).
As a result, six democratic parties in the current parliament found themselves in the minority (85 MPs out of 200).
The head or, more fittingly, the director of the private party ANO is under a criminal investigation started last year in connection with the embezzlement of a European grant of CZK 50 million (approximately $2.5 million). The subsidy was intended for SMEs, and, according to the investigators, a small enterprise Čapí hnízdo (Stork’s Nest) was fictitiously separated from the company Agrofert, owned by Babiš, and then reintegrated a few years later. The previous parliament stripped Babiš of parliamentary immunity, but he reclaimed it after being elected in October 2017.
Despite Babiš being a defendant in the criminal case, President Zeman not only asked him to form the government (even without negotiating the support from other parliamentary parties and securing the majority), but also promised a carte blanche to Babiš for the second attempt to form the government in the case the first cabinet fails to get traction. Formally, the Constitution does not prohibit this, but it is at odds with the long-standing constitutional tradition. (According to the Czech Constitution, the first two attempts to form a government take place by request of the President, and the third – by request of the parliamentary speaker. However, this post is also held by an ANO Movement member, Radek Vondraček).
Read more: Czech elections hijacked by disinformation
Thus, the progressive Czech public believes that the current presidential campaign is very important, as electing a democratic and pro-European president could be the last chance to prevent the country from sliding into authoritarianism or, at least, to freeze this process, in particular to prevent the formation of an oligarchic red and brown coalition.
It is worth noting that the Czech intelligence agency BIS has been warning for the past two years of a dangerous concentration of Russian intelligence assets in the country (President Zeman rejected these conclusions as unjustified). And presidential candidate Jiří Drahoš in November 2017 appealed to the Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka to take appropriate measures to prevent the Kremlin from interfering in the Czech presidential elections..
Zeman’s selective “non-campaigning”
Long before the elections, President Zeman stated that he would not conduct an election campaign, claiming that voters would judge him on the results of his five years in office. Zeman long refused to even attend election debates, but suddenly changed his mind after the first round of elections. However, his election campaign is actually still on: the whole country is full of banners and posters with a portrait of smiling Zeman and the words “Zeman again 2018”.
While transparent accounts have been used to finance the campaigns of all other candidates, and everyone could see the names of donors, amounts and items of expenditure, the sources of funding of Zeman’s “non-campaign” (as it was successfully branded on social networks) remain a secret. The list of persons who provided non-cash assistance free of charge for the “non-campaign” was published on the deadline established by the Law on Elections of the President of the Republic, on January 8, 2018.
According to this document, the largest non-monetary contribution in financial terms (more than CZK 8 million, or $400,000) was provided by the organization Friends of Miloš Zeman (Přátelé Miloše Zemana, z.s.). In the Commercial Register we found the names of its founders in the charter of the organization:
- Vratislav Mynář is the head of the presidential administration. His property is estimated at about CZK 100 million, and Mynář himself has never been security cleared, although this is a condition for his current appointment;
- Karel Srp is a protégé of Zeman associated with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and StB (Czechoslovak counterpart of the KGB);
- Martin Nejedlý is an adviser to the President, until June 2017 he was the director of the Czech branch of the Russian oil company Lukoil, an entrepreneur refusing to disclose the sources of his income and holding a diplomatic passport;
- Jan Veleba is the chairman of the Citizens Rights Party (SPO) founded in 2009 by Zeman, formerly a tractor driver and currently a senator.
Where did these CZK 8 million come from? The Commercial Register shows that since its establishment in 2014, the organization Friends of Miloš Zeman has not submitted a single annual report. Thus, the source of its income is unknown.
The second place by the size of donations was taken by the entrepreneur Jaroslav Třešňák, who is described by Aktualne.cz like this: “According to reports from well-informed sources close to the president’s office, Třešňák acted as one of the sponsors of polls to gauge presidential preferences, and he became close to Zeman thanks to their shared interest in large-scale investments in the east of Russia.” Apparently, with Zeman’s help, business goes smoother in Russia.
Millions also appeared in Zeman’s transparent account. In particular, CZK 2 million were transferred by a Slovak entrepreneur of Russian origin Alexey Belyaev.
Propaganda in action
Long before the elections, the pro-Russian disinformation web sites Sputnik, Aeronet, Parlamentní Listy, etc., joined the fray (http://svobodnenoviny.eu/zvoleni-drahose-by-znamenalo-zavirani-vlastencu-obcanskou-valku-a-invazi-statisicu-muslimu/). Slovak activist Juraj Smatana spotted 44 Czech and Slovak web sites spreading Russian propaganda. All of them unanimously promoted Zeman, portraying him as the only patriot and opponent of immigration, and democratic candidates as multicultural islamophiles. “Journalists” were either digging up or just making up dirt on the opponents of Zeman. At this stage, Drahoš and Horáček were targeted the most, as they announced their decision to run long before the start of the election campaign, and according to the polls had high chances to get to the second round.
It was to be expected that after the announcement of the results of the first round the hatchet would swing non-stop. And so it is. Allegations started pouring in right after the calculation of the poll results.
One of the first to dish out was Nela Liskova, a well-known activist of the pro-Russian extremist scene, who acts as the “honorary consul” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in Ostrava. She claims that “the election of Drahoš will entail arrests of patriots, civil war and the invasion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims”.
Within days pro-Russian and tabloid web sites wrote that Drahoš is a freemason, a member of the Club of Rome (here, Czech propagandists shot themselves in the foot: it turned out that it was Zeman who used to be a member of the Czech branch of the Club of Rome, but not Drahoš). They also claimed Drahoš to be a former agent of StB (therefore, it’s easy to blackmail him, since Soros holds a copy of his personal file that was supposed to be destroyed). The authors of the fakes argued that Drahoš intentionally removed references to all these facts from Wikipedia. In addition, he has been accused of supporting immigration quotas, of waiting to welcome Muslims with open arms, of signing an appeal of scientists in defense of immigrants. It is also alleged that the election campaign of Drahoš has been paid from abroad.
To top it off, a Twitter account in the name of Drahoš has been set up by an anonymous user and is spreading fakes in the name of the presidential candidate. In short, it is the Czech version of the Russian Orwellian propaganda in all its glory.
Official supporters of the incumbent president didn’t lag behind the pro-Kremlin media for long. On January 18, several leading Czech media carried an ad paid by the already mentioned Friends of Miloš Zeman with the text: “STOP IMMIGRANTS AND DRAHOŠ. THIS COUNTRY IS OURS! VOTE ZEMAN!”.
Photochoppers, apparently suspecting some mistake in that ad, published a version with the “correct” photo.
How will all this affect the decision of the voters? Will the Czech Republic receive a new President in March? Or will an old and sick agent of Moscow remain at the helm? We’ll find out on the evening of January 27.