Voters in the Czech Republic are preparing for their most important election since 1989. On Jan. 26, they will begin heading to the polls to pick their next president. The winner of the first round of the two-stage election earlier this month was the incumbent Milos Zeman, who is facing a strong runoff challenge from Jiri Drahos, a pro-western centrist and the former head of the Academy of Sciences. As of now, the race is considered too close to call. For Czechs, Zeman needs little introduction. He has spent his first five-year term excoriating migrants and Muslims, whipping up fears of terrorism, and praising President Vladimir Putin of Russia. He is possibly the closest thing to President Trump that we have today in Central Europe – except Zeman took office long before Trump did.
Some pundits have given Drahos the edge, noting that several of the losing candidates from the first round have pledged their support to him. If Drahos wins, it will be a triumph for the liberal European idea. He’s an ardent supporter of Czech membership in both the European Union and NATO.
Yet it is still far too early to count out Zeman — as he showed with his recent performance against Drahos in a televised debate, which he is widely perceived to have won. If he manages to win reelection, he will have good reason to claim a mandate for his Euroskeptic and anti-Atlanticist policies. And it will give him an excuse to shift the country from its current pro-Western orientation to a dependence on Moscow and Beijing.