PRAGUE — The Czech Republic’s controversy-courting president is seeking re-election this month in what will be the country’s second election in which voters, instead of lawmakers, pick the person to fill the office.
Milos Zeman was elected to the largely ceremonial post in 2013 during the country’s first direct presidential vote, a victory that returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power. In office, he’s become known for strong anti-migrant rhetoric that united him with the populist right, and he has divided the nation with his pro-Russian stance and support for closer ties with China.
He was one of the few European leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, and has voiced support for Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Zeman, 73, is a favorite to win the election’s first round vote on Friday and Saturday.
If no candidate achieves a majority during the vote, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff in two weeks’ time.
The previous two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were elected by lawmakers.
Here’s a look at the vote:
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Under the Czech constitution, the president has the power to pick the prime minister, and to appoint members of the Central Bank board. The president also selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.
Otherwise, the president has little executive power and the country is run by the government chosen and led by the prime minister, currently populist billionaire Andrej Babis, a Zeman ally who faces fraud charges.
Zeman’s politics have been controversial. Unlike his Euro-skeptic predecessor Klaus, he flew the European Union flag at Prague Castle and used to be considered pro-Europe. But in recent years has used every opportunity to attack the EU, and has proposed a referendum on the country’s membership in the bloc after Britain decided to leave.
He is considered a major pro-Russian voice in EU politics, and his views on the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the migrant crisis, divert sharply from that of the European mainstream.
Zeman rejected EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and called Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula irreversible.
He also shares Trump’s views of migration, and has linked attacks in Europe to the ongoing influx of migrants. He has called the immigration wave an “organized invasion.”
The media has been another target for him. Zeman attacked them on his first day in office, saying some of them “brainwash” and “manipulate public opinion.” He told Vladimir Putin during their meeting in China that there were too many journalists and some should be “liquidated.” Putin countered that it could be enough to “reduce” their numbers.
Most recently, he made derogatory comments about the #MeToo movement.
Nonetheless, he remains popular and the latest poll predicts he could get over 42 percent of the vote in the first round. A chain smoker with a soft spot for a drink, he constantly tours the country to meet with citizens.
Two main challengers see the country’s future firmly linked to EU and NATO memberships.
Jiri Drahos, 68, the former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, is considered the most serious contender to unseat Zeman. Drahos isn’t affiliated with a political party. The professor of chemistry says he is worried about the rise of extremism and populism and warned against Russia’s possible interference in the ballot.
He is predicted to get some 27 percent and challenge Zeman in the runoffs.
Michal Horacek, 65, a popular pop music songwriter is distant third with 12 percent. A former co-owner of a betting agency, he is also not affiliated with any political group and finances his campaign by himself. In the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Horacek helped organize talks between the communist regime and anti-communist dissidents led by playwright Vaclav Havel.
The remaining candidates with a chance to advance are not political newcomers: Mirek Topolanek, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, and Pavel Fischer, a former diplomat.
Topolanek, an outspoken politician, was the head of the conservative, euro-skeptic Civic Democratic Party. He was a staunch supporter of a U.S. missile defense plan President Barack Obama ultimately abandoned. Topolanek often made headlines, such as when he called Obama’s economic recovery plan a “road to hell.” He left politics for business in 2010.