AS DEMOCRATIC checks and balances buckle in Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic has seemed to many like the next central European country in line to succumb. Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman, became prime minister after winning October’s general election despite facing fraud charges. He now collaborates closely with his country’s pro-Russian though largely ceremonial president, Milos Zeman. Liberals fret that the pair pose a growing challenge to the rule of law and to the Czech Republic’s pro-Western orientation. But Czech voters and institutions appear to be pushing back.
Although Mr Zeman came top in the first round of the country’s presidential election, scoring 38.6% of the vote on January 12th-13th, he fell well short of a majority. The runner-up, Professor Jiri Drahos, a soft-spoken political novice who previously led the Czech Academy of Sciences, won a larger-than-expected 26.6%, which puts him in a good position to displace the incumbent in the run-off at the end of the month. Three days later, on January 16th, parliament rejected Mr Babis’s attempt to form a minority government. As the leader of the largest party, he was invited to try to do so by the president, though he controls just 78 of the 200 parliamentary seats, lacks a coalition partner and is accused of fraud in connection with EU subsidies for a development project. All told, the presidential second round, on January 26th-27th, is shaping up as a referendum on the direction of the country, if not the entire region.
In September MPs voted by 123 to four to strip Mr Babis of his immunity from prosecution on the fraud charges, but because parliament was then dissolved for the October election, they must now do so again. In noticeable contrast to Mr Zeman, Mr Drahos has called on Mr Babis to give up his immunity voluntarily, and prove his innocence. On January 16th Mr Babis obliged. With police and prosecutors pressing the case, the Hospodarske Noviny newspaper recently leaked a report from EU investigators accusing Mr Babis of “numerous breaches of national and EU legislation”.
Mr Drahos is poaching supporters from Mr Zeman; exit polls found that 14% of Mr Zeman’s voters from 2013 opted for Mr Drahos from a field of nine first-round candidates. “Incompetence, corruption and vulgarity have streamed from Prague Castle for nearly five years,” Mr Drahos told The Economist during the campaign. Mr Zeman is noted for his diatribes against the EU, and for his love of Vladimir Putin (odd in a country that Russian troops invaded in 1968 to crush local hopes of liberty).
These days, Mr Zeman looks frail in his rare public appearances. Confronted by a topless protester from Femen, a radical feminist group, as he cast his vote, a dishevelled Mr Zeman had to steady himself on a nearby table. His election slogan, “Zeman Znovu” (Zeman Again), is hardly inspiring, and there have been reports that he has cancer (which his office denies) to go with his diabetes.
This leads many voters to question whether Mr Zeman still has the fortitude to guide the country and match wits with the wily Mr Babis. Opinion polls have long shown Mr Drahos defeating Mr Zeman in a head-to-head contest, and the candidates who finished third to sixth in the first round (with a combined 32.5% of the vote) have all pledged to support the former chemist in the run-off. While still too early to count out Mr Zeman, not to mention his allies in the media and in Moscow, victory for Mr Drahos would be a breath of fresh air in a region where liberal values have more recently been stifled.
Published on The Economist on January 20, 2018