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Czechs Reelect Populist, Russia-Friendly President In Tight Race


Czech Republic Reelects Zeman As President
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WATCH: Czech Republic Reelects Zeman As President

Russia-friendly incumbent Milos Zeman has been reelected president of the Czech Republic for a second five-year term after winning a closely fought, often divisive, election.

Final results showed Zeman won the run-off election round with 51.36 percent of the vote to 48.63 percent for his opponent, pro-European academic Jiri Drahos, who conceded defeat.

"This is my last political victory," Zeman, 73, said on national television as he thanked his supporters while also noting that he had gained some 100,000 more votes than he had in the previous presidential election.

"I would like to congratulate election winner Milos Zeman," Drahos told a crowd of supporters as he publicly acknowledged the result. However, he also said the "energy" that his campaign generated would not disappear. "I will not leave public life," he said. "I will remain."

Around 8.4 million Czechs were eligible to vote in the runoff, which was mandated after no candidate won a majority in the January 12-13 first round. Turnout was high with more than 66 percent casting their ballots.

Zeman has held the largely ceremonial post since 2013. He has courted controversy by voicing antimigrant views, denigrating Muslims, and warming up to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when many in Europe fear that Moscow is meddling in Western elections and affairs. He also seeks closer ties with China.

Zeman's views on the conflict in eastern Ukraine diverge sharply from the European mainstream. He has called Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula irreversible.

The Kremlin said late on January 27 that Putin in a congratulatory message told the Czech president that the election results “had showcased [Zeman's] high authority as an experienced and responsible politician who put the Czech people's interests and aspirations into life."

The message added that “"Russia's president confirmed the readiness to continue constructive joint work on bilateral and global agenda.”

Pro-European liberal Drahos, 68, is the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences and a political newcomer with no party affiliation. During the campaign he had expressed concern about the rise of extremism and populism.

Polarized Society

In their final TV debate on January 25, Drahos and Zeman both spoke in favor of deeper EU cooperation and against refugee quotas. During the debate, Drahos called Zeman "a representative of the past political era...a symbol of division."

Czech political analyst Jiri Pehe told RFE/RL on January 27 that Zeman's tight victory shows indeed that Czech society is split right down the middle between two camps.

"Mr. Zeman represents the camp that we could call the postcommunist part of society, older people from small towns, villages in regions such as northern Bohemia or northern Moravia, people who are not only rooted in the past but are also afraid of some of the new challenges that this world has for us, such as globalization and immigration," Pehe said.

He added that Zeman's campaign was based on promising "to protect the nation from some of those challenges."

Academic Drahos, who said he saw Russia as a security threat because Moscow sees NATO as its adversary, was attacked by Zeman as lacking political experience, an argument which analyst Pehe says was Drahos's main handicap.

Meanwhile, Zeman, who is an experienced politician, "is smart enough to have noticed that his orientation towards Moscow and China is not shared by the majority of the Czech people," Pehe said.

During the last days of the campaign, Zeman changed his tone, emphasizing his credentials as a Western politician who contributed to bringing the Czech Republic into the European Union and NATO, said Pehe.

"I think he realizes that this is one issue where probably he doesn't have a majority behind him and that's why he has started talking in different ways," said Pehe, adding that Zeman now has a good opportunity to try and become the president of all Czechs.

"But that would require on his part changing some of the rhetoric and becoming less combative, less provocative," Pehe concluded.

Zeman appeared to indeed strike a more conciliatory note in his victory address -- but not without his trademark abrasiveness.

"I would like to be a bit humbler, less self-confident and somewhat more accommodating toward people whose views are different from mine; to be less arrogant, although I'll continue to think they're no good." Zeman told supporters after the vote.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, iDnes.cz, Novinky.cz, and AP
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