Over more than a millennium, the awe-inspiring Prague Castle has been home to Bohemian kings, Holy Roman emperors, Nazi commanders, communist apparatchiks and one playwright-turned-dissident who helped topple a superpower. Now the castle’s imposing stone walls and soaring Gothic spires are home to yet another era-defining figure — a president who for the past five years has turned it into a citadel of European populism. As Czech president, Milos Zeman has used his lofty official residence to hurl down verbal thunderbolts expressing, in characteristically profane terms, his disdain for Muslims, journalists and the European Union. He has meanwhile shown fawning admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and others who can bend democratic systems to their iron nationalist will.
But the 73-year-old Zeman’s lease on castle life may be running out. Fired by what they say is the spirit of the 1989 uprising that ended decades of Soviet occupation, Zeman’s pro-Western opponents have mounted an aggressive campaign to oust him in an election this week.
The contest is being watched as a barometer of whether the populist, nationalist and pro-Russian tide that suffered setbacks in Western Europe last year can be reversed in the continent’s center and east. With polls showing the race effectively tied ahead of Saturday results, the Czech Republic — long a continental fulcrum — could tilt in either direction.