Prague – Three months after the election of the populist Eurosceptic and billionaire Andrej Babis as prime minister, Czechs will once again head to the polls this weekend to elect a new president.
Voting takes place on Friday and Saturday.
The favourite in the field of nine candidates vying for a spot in the election runoff later this month is the outspoken incumbent, President Milos Zeman, who at 73 has watched his country become more politically divided during his five-year tenure.
As a member of an increasingly right-wing regional alliance of Central European nations, named the Visegrad Group, that includes Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the Czech Republic stands at an ideological crossroads with the rise of the country’s xenophobic far right, which rose to parliament in October’s legislative elections.
We are in a situation where if everything goes badly we could be faced with regime change, and though not another dictatorship, we could still perhaps become an illiberal democracy
Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague
Zeman has been a vocal opponent of Muslim integration and is seen as sympathetic to authoritarian regimes, while also becoming one of the Kremlin’s most dependable allies in Europe.
They are views worrying many Czechs, who fear that their country may be backsliding from the democratic system they fought so fervently to achieve during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which ended four decades under communism.
“In terms of a possible change in terms of a political movement, this is certainly the most important presidential election [in recent history].
“We are in a situation where if everything goes badly we could be faced with regime change, and though not another dictatorship, we could still perhaps become an illiberal democracy,” said political analyst Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.
“It could indicate the end of the first democratic republic and the onset of the second republic.”
Since the split of Czechoslovakia 25 years ago, the presidency has become a somewhat ceremonial position with a limited but not insignificant scope of responsibilities that includes appointing high-ranking government positions and meeting foreign heads of state.
The president is also expected to advance the country’s political trajectory by toeing the line of policies of the elected parliament. That has not been Zeman’s way.
In one example in October, then Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka accused Zeman of interfering in Czech foreign affairs and contradicting the government when he repeated his stance against EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis while defending Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula as irreversible.
Zeman’s speech “was in sharp contradiction of our foreign policy and the president had no mandate to do it,” Sobotka said at the time.
What is at stake?
Capitalising on growing disdain for the country’s dysfunctional government in the democratic era, Prime Minister Babis has promised to consolidate the role of government in favour of a stronger executive, drawing strong criticism from his opponents.
On Wednesday, Zeman pledged to stand by the caretaker prime minister even though it is unlikely he will be able to win a vote of confidence from parliament.
With President Zeman all but declaring for Babis and no signs that the latter would be able to form a government before Zeman’s term expires in early March, a new president may find himself in the position of calling for snap elections if Zeman has not already appointment him prime minister.
“If Babis is n
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