Prague, Czech Republic – Incumbent Milos Zeman has won the first round of the Czech presidential election but faces a runoff after failing to gain the outright majority needed to win outright.
With over 99 percent of ballots counted, Zeman led the pack of nine candidates with 38.65 percent of the votes, the Czech Statistical Office said on Saturday.
Jiri Drahos, the former head of the country’s Academy of Sciences, was the clear runner-up with 26.56 percent.
The populist president and the chemist-turned-politician will now face each other in a two-day runoff election on January 26-27.
“We did it,” Drahos wrote on social media.
“A duel with Milos Zeman in the second round will be tough. We don’t know if he’s going to meet me face-to-face and the defence of our mandate will be hard. We have to be ready.”
While the role of the president is largely ceremonial, it is regarded as a key indicator of the country’s political direction and a symbol of its values.
A right-wing, pro-Russia candidate, Zeman has come under fire by critics for his xenophobic views, while his anti-Islamic rhetoric is seen by many as stoking a deep divide in the Czech Republic.
“There is, I would say, a lot of public interest in this as it is very much related to the current president who managed to divide our society,” said Dita Charanzova, a member of European parliament who is also an adviser to caretaker Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a Eurosceptic populist and billionaire.
“I think the most important thing is that we manage to unite our society, as was the case with the previous presidents,” she added.
Zeman, who served his first five-year term after being elected in 2013, has also being accused by opponents of being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin – on Friday, the populist president was accosted while casting his vote by a topless woman who chanted “Putin’s slut” before being wrangled to the floor by security.
“There is a big disappointment with Mr. Zeman in that position and he is very clearly focusing on Russia and China and trying much more to cooperate with non-democratic countries so that’s the first point that is so important for us,” said Marketa Adamova, deputy chairman of the liberal-conservative Top 09 party, which did not float a candidate.
Three months after being elected, Babis’ minority party has thus far been unable to form a government. If the caretaker prime minister fails to win a vote of confidence before Zeman’s term ends in March, the next president may force snap legislative elections.
Local polls prior to Saturday’s vote saw Zeman narrowly beating Drahos in a runoff, while state-run Czech Television released a poll last week that had Drahos edging the president with 48.5 percent of the vote to Zeman’s 44 percent.
“If Drahos wins, the image of the president will be different than in the Zeman era because Drahos is an intellectual without a radical vision or appeals,” said Lubomir Kopecek, a political analyst at Masaryk University in the city of Brno.