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In Czech Election, a Choice Between Leaning East or West

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.

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HANA de GOEIJ, New York Times

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 by the 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,” Pehe said.

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.

“I will strive for us to live in a country where respect and decency can once again be taken for granted,” Drahos has said.

He secured his spot in the runoff by finishing second to Zeman in the first round of voting this weekend. Zeman received 38.6 percent of the vote, compared with 26.6 for Drahos.

Several of the other first-round candidates immediately endorsed Drahos, including those who placed third, fourth and fifth and collectively won 28.2 percent of the vote.

Political analysts agree that it will probably be a tight race, and one that could turn ugly.

The election, to take place on Jan. 26 and 27, is only the second time in the country’s history that the people will vote directly for president.

Zeman won the presidency in 2013 by appealing to voters eager for change after the financial crisis left many people in the country reeling, and his leftist approach stood in contrast to the right-wing ideologies of other populists in the region.

A former prime minister, Zeman presented himself at the time as a fighter who could battle a system rife with corruption and plagued by patronage.

But soon he would take up the mantle of a fighter in a different battle: the issue of Muslim migration into Europe.

Two decades ago, the Czech Republic opened its doors to people seeking refuge from the wars in the Balkans, taking in thousands of refugees from Bosnia, including Muslims.

But three years ago, as the number of migrants fleeing Africa and the Middle East accelerated, Zeman became one of the most outspoken critics of the European Union’s migration policies.

Under a quota system, the Czech Republic was required to allow 2,691 migrants into the country. It allowed 12, and then declined to take any more. It is currently fighting in European courts over the issue.

The position staked out by Zeman remains popular and, for the most part, the political debate over migration is over in the Czech Republic.

Drahos has emphasized that he is a “clear no” on the question of accepting the EU quotas.

But this political consensus has not stopped Zeman from using increasingly incendiary language to make his point on immigration. “I am profoundly convinced that we are facing an organized invasion and not a spontaneous movement of refugees,” he said in 2015.

While visiting a small border town, he said he would bring in firefighters with water canons to repel people if need be.

It is this sort of raw language, which often seems calculated to offend the intellectual class in Prague, that some voters admire as an authentic voice of ordinary people.

When visiting winemakers, Zeman, who boasts about his heavy drinking, declared “death to abstainers and vegetarians,” with a knowing wink. On a visit to China, he met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Noting the large number of journalists recording the event, he suggested, with a grin, that some should be “liquidated.”

But even Zeman’s critics say he is smart, well-read and one of the most effective public speakers in the country. And the more his comments outrage the intellectual class, the more his core supporters seem drawn to him.

For many, however, his language is not just offensive, but is also opening the door to fringe groups that until recently had dwelled on the margins of Czech political life, including the SPD, a neo-fascist group that has called for banning Islam. Babis has flirted with bringing them into a coalition government, and Zeman spoke at a SPD party conference.

“That puts the Czech president on the political map somewhere where no other politician in the democratic part of Europe is,” Pehe said. “Even Orban in Hungary and Kaczynski in Poland have not aligned themselves with these kinds of political forces.”

The relationship between Zeman and Babis — always one of convenience — seemed to be shifting after the first round of voting. Babis endorsed Zeman, but in what seemed like a clear attempt to hedge his bets, he offered a strong critique of his political patron.

“If he wants to succeed in the second round, he should openly declare that he does not want to stir our country toward the East, that he does not want to stir our country toward Russia or China,” Babis said on Saturday.

If Zeman ultimately wins, it is likely to affect how the Czech Republic positions itself in uncertain times for the European Union.

Zeman does not shy away from the fact that he is close with Putin and actively courting Chinese investment. While he supports staying the in the EU, he has been one of the constant thorns in its side.

“He still flies the EU flag over the castle,” said Petr Bouska, an activist fighting political polarization in the Czech Republic. “But it could soon be joined by a Russian or Chinese flag.”

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