A people feeling left out, condescended to and ignored. A fear that outsiders fleeing war and poverty in Muslim nations threaten the homeland. And a deep distrust of institutions, especially governments that seem disconnected from daily concerns. From Poland to Pennsylvania Avenue, populist leaders have risen to power in recent years by tapping into these deeply emotional issues. In two weeks, one of the most outspoken of those leaders, President Milos Zeman, 73, of the Czech Republic, will face a test that could provide a barometer for the enduring strength of that message in this country and perhaps across the region. The second and final round of the presidential election will help decide whether the Czech nation continues to be drawn east toward Russia and China or moves back more fully into the embrace of the European Union.
The vote this month follows parliamentary elections in October won bythe populist Ano movement, led by the billionaire Andrej Babis, who was then appointed prime minister. After those parliamentary elections, “it seemed that the Czech Republic may be sliding to what we see in Hungary and Poland,” said Jiri Pehe, who was a political adviser to President Vaclav Havel and is now the director of New York University in Prague. He was referring to the right-wing governments in those two countries, which now both have a strained relationship with the European Union over moves that critics in Brussels see as undemocratic.
“This election is in some ways more significant, because it will show what part of society is looking backward instead of forward,” Mr. Pehe said.
Mr. Zeman’s opponent in the presidential vote, Jiri Drahos, 68, a chemical engineer by training and the former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences, has presented himself as a defender of democratic values and civility.