Sean Hanley: Unless something major happens, TV debates unlikely to save Zeman

Jiří Drahoš, photo: ČTK

Miloš Zeman received less of the vote than predicted in round one of the presidential elections and his challenger Jiří Drahoš seems to have a strong chance of unseating the incumbent. So who is most likely to be the next Czech head of state? And given his rhetorical skills, will mooted TV debates be enough to turn things around for Mr. Zeman? I discussed those questions with Dr. Sean Hanley of School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

Jiří Drahoš, photo: CTK
“I think really we have to now say Jiří Drahoš; all the polls have shown that he will beat Miloš Zeman in the second round.

“All but one of the losing candidates in the first round have backed him.

“And they’ve also put their media resources, their billboards and their social media operations at his disposal.

“Also it’s very hard to see where Miloš Zeman could pick up the additional voters he would need.

“I think it’s been estimated that he would need to pick up about a million and a half voters, something like that, and it’s very hard to imagine where those voters would come for.”

As we speak there is still no agreement between the two candidates on the number of TV debates that will be held before the second round. But how important a factor could such debates be, if they take place?

“I think they will have an impact. It’s difficult to say how much of an impact.

“Miloš Zeman is obviously the more experienced TV performer and he’s somebody who can crush opponents when he wants to, who can put down opponents, especially opponents who are not seasoned television performers.

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK
“So in the last presidential election Zeman did well, both against the perceived frontrunner Jan Fischer, who was an independent and who was inexperienced and in some ways a similar candidate to Jiří Drahoš, and also against Karel Schwarzenberg.

“So clearly Zeman now wants to have as many TV debates as possible and Drahoš would like to have a more restricted number; I think four and two are the numbers they’re disagreeing about.

“But I think unless something very major happens, unless Jiří Drahoš performs very badly, it’s hard to see the debate having enough of an impact to really change the result, given the apparent gap between the two candidates.”

What about the suggestions that there could be some kind of dirty tricks against Drahoš, some kind of disinformation campaign, and that that could also impact his candidacy?

“I think that’s happening already, on social media and websites which are sympathetic to Miloš Zeman. There have been all kinds of false rumours about Drahoš circulating.

Sean Hanley, photo: Ian Willoughby
“I think, however, that to really be effective in damaging him as a candidate they would need to tap into something that is a genuine weakness. And so far it’s hard to see what this might be.

“I think Miloš Zeman personally and his campaign will target Drahoš and try to highlight his weaknesses as a candidate, which are that he’s inexperienced and that he sort of lacks clear views.

“But until and unless opponents of Drahoš can tap into something that’s a real weakness, I don’t think it’s going to have much of an effect.

“It’s possible that something could emerge from his past. But so far it hasn’t.”