Analyst: Presidential election may have been won by incumbent but new political potential was harnessed

Jiří Pehe

The presidential election between incumbent Miloš Zeman and challenger Jiří Drahoš was, in the end, decided by just over 150,000 thousand votes. Both candidates predicted correctly that each vote would matter and the losing camp will perhaps now rue opportunities missed. Still, Mr Drahoš said in his concession speech that there was new energy now which would continue.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: ČTK
Of course, many will be focussing on what Mr Zeman’s re-election will mean: for the country, the next government and also how Czechs are perceived by partners abroad.

I discussed those and other questions with political analyst Jiří Pehe, beginning with the closeness of the result itself.

“I think that it ended up being very close: many had predicted the decision was basically 50/50 and I think that what decided the race, in the end, were either tactical mistakes by Mr Drahoš or good moves by Mr Zeman. If you look at the underlying causes, I think they remain basically the same and that is that Czech society is split roughly in the middle. Unlike in 2013, when the gap between voters in both camps was wider and was more in favour of Mr Zeman, now it is really close.

“The two camps we are talking about are, on the one hand, what I would call the post-communist camp: older people, some of them still nostalgic for the past or most of them scared of new challenges that we face in the form of globalisation and immigration and Mr Zeman is their favourite because he promises to protect them.

“And then you have the other part, which is roughly also about 50 percent of Czech society, which is more modern, for lack of a better expression. People who are more open to the outside world and who are more pro-European and so on. So we are split in the middle, Mr Zeman won by a thin margin and if we look at demographic trends, things are not going in favour of Mr Zeman’s camp in the future.”

Critics charge that Mr Zeman led a five-year-long campaign during visits to the regions, but no matter how you see it, it was always going to be difficult to beat the incumbent…

“Yes. And one thing that surprised me was that he wasn’t able to capitalise more on the fact that he had already been president for five years. In any election the incumbent, unless he really does terrible things, really has a bonus to start with. And Mr Zeman, this time around didn’t get that many more votes than in 2013.

“This was a close race, ultimately decided by a few good moves and a few tactical mistakes.”

“In terms of how people view his presidency, that doesn’t seem like a great success. He won and that is important to him but certainly he was not able to do what he promised in 2013 and that is to unify Czech society. Instead, he won because he polarised Czech society and the group that returned the presidency for him was only slightly larger.”

There were issues which came to the fore, either because of journalists or because the Drahoš camp was able to push them to a greater or lesser degree. These are issues which are well-known to most Czechs: the behaviour of his aides, both current and former, incidents in which the president used vulgar language, more importantly there are questions about his campaign financing and transparency and questions about his pro-Russia stance. But we see that those issues didn’t matter or weren’t sticking points for the majority. Don’t they matter to the Zeman voter?

“I don’t think they matter as much as they should, obviously. Some of these things are seen by his voters as attacks generated by the media, some of his actions or expressions are sort of downplayed by his voters and what is important for them is that he is ‘one of us’, the kind of man with whom they feel they could sit next to in a Czech pub and he talks their language. Those things are what matter to his voters.”

“The things which matter to the ‘Prague café’ as he calls the segment of society voting against him and his opponents, really do not seem to matter to his supporters and he knows that. From that point of view, we have to give it to him that he is a good political strategist and he played this game for five years. He divided Czech society and put all his bets in one corner in the hope they would deliver for him. And they did.”

Some people these days put more stock in betting agency figures than opinion polls: a week or so ago, those agencies were favouring Mr Drahoš but in the run up the positions were reversed. What happened? Were the TV debates decisive?

Jiří Pehe | Photo: Jana Trpišovská,  Czech Radio
“I think they may have been. The two debates Mr Drahoš took part in, on commercial broadcaster TV Prima and public broadcaster Czech TV, may have played a role. He wasn’t very good in the first but was much better in the second. But more than that, what might have hurt him were two debates he didn’t take part in, especially the one on TV Nova, in which the president had an hour to himself. Over time, I think that may be seen as one of his major mistakes.

“We can understand why he didn’t want to, as Mr Zeman kept changing the proposal: first there were no debates, then there were to be two debates, then four, so Mr Drahoš put his foot down. But the TV Nova debate was seen by two million people and the latter was absent and in the end that may be the 150,000 votes which cost him the election.”

As a tactician, Mr Zeman was very savvy in changing the rules – do you think that it threw his opponent off?

“It wasn’t just with the debates, it was about the naming of the government, where his speech seemed more geared towards the presidential election, it was his tours of the regions over five years. He says it was a part of his job but we will see now whether it was in reality just a continuation of his electoral campaign. We’ll see if he visits as often now, now that he doesn’t need those people anymore.”

In the run-up to the second round, he said he would be less abrasive in the second term than he was in the first. If we compare him to someone like Václav Klaus, in his second term he seemed to move more towards the fringe, groups that were less than tolerant. Of course, some of those have since become more mainstream in Czech politics. Is there a danger that Mr Zeman will become “unchained” in his second term when he has nothing more to lose?

“Zeman knows his voters, who feel he is someone they could sit next to in the pub.”

“He may but the question is whether that would harm some of his supporters. The outgoing PM, Mr Babiš, quite frankly has no leverage now to use against Mr Zeman. The latter has been re-elected, he will be there for five years or until he dies and he knows that. So I don’t think he feels in any way committed to the alliance with Mr Babiš and we know that before the second round he said he would name him again as prime minister no matter what if he lost, but now that he has won he can insist on Mr Babiš bringing him proof of a clear a majority in his second attempt to form a government. So he is basically telling us ‘I am the boss’ and Mr Babiš had better watch out.”

Which is in continuity with his first term because he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to have an impact on day-to-day politics and to expand the presidential powers, so to speak. Alright, so we don’t forget Mr Drahoš in all this: he conceded the race with a considerable amount of grace at around 4 pm and spoke of a kind of energy that had been harnessed and the role it could play moving forward. Does he still have a future in Czech politics or perhaps some of the other candidates from the first round?

“I am not sure Mr Drahoš would be right as the leader of a political movement, he is not the type, he is more presidential material. But some of the others, such as Pavel Fischer who is very popular among Catholic voters, could go into party politics, either leading the Christian Democrats one day or launching his own movement.

Jiří Drahoš,  photo: CTK
“Certainly surgeon Marek Hilšer, who proved to be a very dynamic, young, and energetic politician who came out of nowhere and who got a lot of votes from young people, could have a strong future. Also, Michal Horáček had an impact in the first round and was very gracious after going out in the first round. I think there is promise there for them. I am less sure about Mr Drahoš although he could run again for president of course.”

We know what kind of a message this election has sent at home but I’d like to ask how the results of this election will be perceived abroad? Because this election was seen abroad as largely as a decision between the West and the East: in electing Mr Zeman will we now be perceived as moving more to the East?

“You know, I think this is the main blemish here because, quite frankly, in the West this election was given much more weight or credence than I think it actually deserved. Even with Mr Zeman’s victory, I don’t think there will be any major shift towards the East such as Russia or China. Just before the second round, Mr Zeman tried to tone down his rhetoric and present himself as a pro-Western politician and so on.

“But in the West in the meantime, whether he likes it or not – and whether WE like it or not – he has become a symbol of pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policies, a politician with extremely strong anti-immigration views and despite the fact that some off that may have just been political rhetoric or political strategy – that will stick.

“I am afraid that in the West his victory will be interpreted as a sign that the Czech Republic may be moving to the same camp as Hungary and Poland and that his alliance with the prime minister, Mr Babiš, may take the country down that path. That is one bad piece of news coming out of this election, the perception. And that perception is not very good for the Czech Republic.”

“The biggest blemish here is how Mr Zeman’s victory will be perceived abroad: as a shift to the East, whether or not that is actually the case.”

Perhaps, though, he may try to balance things out, improve the optics as he considers the legacy he wants to leave behind. Of course we can’t know at this moment.

“Yes. You know, you mentioned that he could become unhinged, like Mr Klaus. But there is also a possibility it might be just the opposite. He may want to leave a more statesmanlike legacy and make good on his words that he is pro-European, a European federalist even, so we will see. It is difficult to say right now whether he will change or will continue to play the role of a political extremist, who western countries will view with relief only when he finally leaves office.”