The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-Europe Czechs hope for early spring in Prague, push to defeat Putin-friendly president

Prague Castle, home to the Czech president, has been a seat of power for more than 1,000 years. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

PRAGUE — 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. 

The result could determine whether the country joins Hungary and Poland in their increasingly renegade stance within the E.U. or remains more solidly rooted in a Western community it had sought for many years to join.

E.U. pursues unprecedented action against Poland in a sign of escalating tensions

"There won't be a silver medal here," said Michal Horacek, a Velvet Revolution veteran who compared the contest to a Cold War-era ice hockey showdown between the Czechoslovakian national team and the team of the country's Soviet overlords. "To me, it's just like when we played against the Russians. And we're playing against them now." 

Horacek tried and failed to defeat Zeman, who has proudly cast himself as "the Czech Trump," in the first round of presidential balloting. Now he has endorsed Zeman's second-round opponent, a mild-mannered 68-year-old chemist and political neophyte named Jiri Drahos.

"Politeness is power," runs the tagline on Drahos's campaign materials.

Although the president does not run the Czech government — that is the prime minister's job — the position entails far more influence than in many democracies across Europe. The first post-communist Czech president was Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led anti-Soviet demonstrations, and the job grew to match his stature. 

The position is especially important today, after an inconclusive parliamentary vote in October that has left the country without a functioning government. The president is poised to play a critical role in determining who will become prime minister. 

A Zeman victory would be a boost to close ally Andrej Babis, the billionaire who leads the largest party in Parliament but has struggled to form a coalition because he faces a pending fraud investigation.

In center of Europe, politics takes a Trumpian turn with rise of anti-immigrant billionaire

On a continent where fragmented parliaments have become the norm, the Czech presidential election presents an unusually clear binary choice.

"Czech society, 30 years after the fall of communism, is really divided into two camps," said Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University's Prague campus. "One is older people in small towns who are nostalgic for the old regime and the security it brought. Then you have the younger generation that is more comfortable with modernity."

Pehe said that during the last election, in 2013, that division gave the edge to Zeman. But recent demographic changes have shifted the equation. "Now it really is fifty-fifty," he said. 

Yet in an indication of just how difficult it will be to defeat the incumbent, Drahos has been subjected in recent days to "a flood of false stories" online, said Veronika Vichova, an analyst with the European Values think tank. The unsubstantiated allegations include that Drahos is planning to open the country to a wave of Muslim refugees and that he is a pedophile.

Vichova said the origin of the disinformation campaign is unclear. But the president's close ties to Moscow have focused suspicion on Russia. 

"It is logical that the Russian secret service and related organizations are very much involved in the campaign," Drahos said when asked by The Washington Post about the reports. "It was the same in the U.S., in France, in Germany, everywhere." 

In a nationally televised debate this week, Zeman laughed off suggestions that Russia could be helping his cause and said he would oppose any effort to force technology companies to crack down on deliberately misleading messages.  

"Who's going to decide what is information and what is disinformation — or, as President Trump would call it, fake news?" he asked as his supporters cheered rapturously.

Zeman is loved by his supporters for the same reason his detractors despise him. 

A former prime minister who once led the country's main center-left party, Zeman has built a loyal following by speaking what his backers regard as hard truths — but what critics see as deliberately inflammatory lies.

The Czech Republic was far from the main routes for asylum seekers at the height of Europe's refugee influx in 2015 and 2016, and it took only 12 of the 2,600 people it was meant to accept under an E.U.-wide relocation program. But Zeman has seized on the issue, warning of an "invasion." 

Islam, Zeman has said, is "a religion of hatred," and Muslims are "impossible" to integrate into European society. The slogan on his campaign billboards is "Stop immigration and Drahos! This country is ours!" 

Never mind that Drahos has joined Zeman — and virtually every other mainstream Czech politician — in rejecting the E.U.'s refugee quotas, saying he disagrees with the president on the style, not the substance, of his position.

But style matters.

"Zeman protects us from the bad outside world," said Evzenie Dbala, a 66-year-old retiree who drove from her small home town to the capital this week to cheer on her president at the debate. "Some people don't like the way he speaks. He's a bit rough. But it comes from the heart."

His rough talk has not been limited to refugees. He has suggested "liquidating" journalists, denounced E.U. leaders as "cowards" and used an insulting term for female genitalia in a national radio interview. 

For Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, he has had little but praise. A fierce opponent of European sanctions against Russia, Zeman has made frequent visits to Moscow and endorsed the Russian annexation of Crimea.

He is also famously inattentive to facts. Even friends say his interests lie elsewhere.

"When I go visit him in the castle, we talk for hours, and there may not be a single word about politics," said Frantisek "Ringo" Cech, a 73-year-old artist, musician and longtime friend of the president's. "We talk about women."  

Drahos cuts a dramatically different figure, one that is technocratic, wholesome, somewhat stiff and entirely free of incendiary political stands.

At a rally this week, one of his last before the two-day vote kicks off Friday, he sang a Czech folk song extolling a strong work ethic, laughed gamely at a "Saturday Night Live"-style skit mimicking Babis and was reminded by his wife, who appeared via videolink, that there was plenty of yogurt for him in the fridge. 

"Oh, good," he said. "I'll have something to eat for breakfast." 

To Petr Kolar, a former Czech ambassador to Russia and the United States who now serves as a Drahos adviser, the challenger is the anti-Zeman in every way. But whether that will ultimately help or hurt remains to be seen.

"The main feature of Drahos is decency. No manipulation of facts. No lying," Kolar said. 

"That's also his problem. Rationality doesn't work so well anymore. It's all about emotion. It's hard to win elections if you are decent and serious." 

Katerina Santurova contributed to this report.

Democratic elections in Poland face a new threat

Poland appears to be dismantling its own hard-won democracy

In Poland, a window on what happens when populists come to power

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news