Televised debates between Zeman and Drahoš could decide presidential race

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

Last Friday and Saturday Czechs went to the polls for the first round of the presidential election, choosing among nine candidates including President Miloš Zeman. Public surveys had repeatedly suggested that both the incumbent and his opponent, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences Jiří Drahoš, would advance. They hit the nail on the head.

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK
President Miloš Zeman had appeared tired at press conferences last month but was clearly reinvigorated on Saturday when the first round of the election was called, leaving him in first place with 38.6 percent of the vote, compared to 26.6 for Mr Drahoš.

The president first thanked his wife and then had a message for his voters in two weeks’ time:

“If they want to see me re-elected, I’d like to call on my voters, to come out for me again in the second round and to take along anyone with them their friends, their family, their lovers, basically anyone with the right to vote.”

The president, however, signalled a major pivot in his campaign, accepting the challenge to face his rival in a televised debate, something he refused to do before: in the first round he declined to take part in any of the debates against the field of eight.

Jiří Drahoš’ fairly strong second-place finish appears to have changed the game: the president, political analysts suggested, realized that to consolidate his position debates would now be necessary.

Indeed, it is lost on no one that they could be greatly to the incumbent’s benefit: a shrewd and experienced debater, Mr Zeman, shredded his opponents Jan Fischer and Karel Schwarzenberg in the previous election; he could use the opportunity to regain the jump on Drahoš, who appears to have certain momentum, now. Here is what the president said:

“I’m still young and at full strength and energy and discussion is something I enjoy.”

Many political commentators have suggested debating Mr Zeman could present a minefield for the chemist and academician Drahoš but the candidate himself made clear he would never shy away or cower from anyone. His supporters are confident he could turn even a less polished delivery into a plus, and that even be a draw could at this point be enough, if he presents a cultivated, calm and serious alternative.

Jiří Drahoš, photo: CTK
Even more importantly from his perspective, Mr Drahoš theoretically stands to benefit from support from a grouping of other candidates who finished in third to sixth position at the weekend and together received well over a million votes. Pavel Fischer, Michal Horáček, Marek Hilšer, and Mirek Topolánek all backed Drahoš over Zeman in the second round and betting agencies are now giving the challenger slightly better odds than Mr Zeman to win.

Of course that could still change.

Jiří Drahoš on Sunday in an interview for Czech Radio’s flagship station, Radiožurnál, made clear he was concerned about possible shenanigans and even that Russian intelligence could try and somehow influence the election in Mr Zeman’s favour. Mr Zeman’s pro-Russian stance is well-known and it’s no secret which candidate Moscow would prefer as the winner. Here is what Mr Drahoš said:

“I am convinced that it would be in the interest for certain foreign services, not least the Russians, for Zeman to remain president. I can’t prove it of course… but in its annual report even the Czech counter-intelligence BIS allowed that that could be the case.”

The second round of the election will be on January 26 and 27.

How Czechs abroad voted in the first round

More than 45 percent of Czechs abroad voted for Jiří Drahoš in the first round of presidential elections.

Pavel Fischer finished second with over 20 percent of the vote, followed by Marek Hilšer with more than 11 percent.

The incumbent Czech president Miloš Zeman, who won the first round with round in the Czech Republic, secured 7.5 percent of the vote to finish in the fifth place. Jiří Drahoš gained more than 50 percent of the vote among Czech voters in the US and Brussels.

Miloš Zeman, on the other hand, secured votes of Czech soldiers on foreign missions, coming in the first place in Kosovo and Afghanistan.