No knockout blows in first presidential duel

Jiří Drahoš, Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

The highly-anticipated first televised debate between current Czech president, Miloš Zeman, and his challenger Jiří Drahoš, drew more than two million viewers. Political veteran Zeman dictated much of the tempo and landed more punches but his opponent was seen as holding his own. Most criticised was the discussion format itself, which hamstrung serious debate.

Jiří Drahoš,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Tuesday’s debate on commercial broadcaster TV Prima at one point had more than two million viewers tuning in, with many supporters of one candidate or the other probably on the edge of their seats. But anyone expecting deep debate on key issues is likely to have been disappointed. Even before either candidate had spoken, it was clear that the station had framed the debate along the lines of Pop Idol or Czechia’s Got Talent.

There was a boisterous and sometimes disruptive live audience with the moderator often struggling to keep them or the candidates, especially the president, from interrupting their rival’s answers.

Political analyst Lukáš Jelínek of the Masaryk Democratic Academy, a think-tank with ties to the Social Democratic Party, summed up the debate liked this:

“We are living in the era of reality shows which commercial stations build on. I think the format of the debate was exactly in line with that. The format and the way some of the topics were chosen, in reality prevented the candidates from discussing issues in depth.”

Supporters of Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Given his decades of political experience, incumbent Zeman often appeared more comfortable in the rowdy setting and was largely in the driver’s seat. He often set the tempo and got in snipes which often left Professor Drahoš looking like a schoolboy. Mr Zeman, for example, mocked him on the topic of election meddling by the Russians, saying that he, unlike his opponent, regularly received secret service intelligence reports.

At the same time, Mr Drahoš proved stubborn even on the defensive. While visibly the more nervous of the two, he fought back and scored several jabs of his own while remaining polite and largely positive as is now his trademark. He got his biggest applause of the night on the topic of gun control, suggesting "not everyone should own a gun and not everyone could shoot a thief", describing his stance on gun proliferation. Mr Zeman, though, was perceived to have the edge on migration. His supporters maintained he “owned” Mr Drahoš on that and other issues.

Others suggest though that Mr Zeman is not the formidable debater he was in the past. Political analyst Lukáš Jelínek again:

“You could say that Zeman dominated but I remember him as a far more interesting and brilliant orator. In my view, he has grown over-ripe in office, while Mr Drahoš has not fully ripened yet… It depends how we perceive the role of the president and I think in the debate supporters of both came into their own.”

Jiří Drahoš,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
Whether either candidate attracted undecided voters, believed to total around 10 percent of potential voters who could decide the election, is the outstanding question.

Images in debates often count for more than the words. Some commentators zoned in on one of the night’s final moments, when a relatively fit-looking 67-year-old Mr Drahoš stood up without difficulty but Mr Zeman struggled to get up from his seat.

For better or worse, the president’s health – and visibly poorer appearance over recent months – has been an issue. Despite repeated assurances to the public by his doctors, some voters will be wondering whether his fitness will be a problem moving forward.