Yesterday in Crikey I offered a list of the top ten elections to watch for in 2018. One that didn’t make the cut is the Czech presidential election, whose first round of voting is taking place today and tomorrow.

It’s an important election, but the first round is just the curtain-raiser: everyone expects that it will go to a runoff in two weeks time. The front-runner is incumbent Miloš Zeman, probably the most unpleasant and dangerous head of state in the European Union.

Czechia has a parliamentary system, so the damage that the president can do is limited. But with a fragmented political landscape – nine parties are represented in parliament, and the minority government faces defeat on a vote of confidence next week – even a ceremonial head of state is quite powerful.

As I’ve suggested before, the Czech move to direct election of the president lends support to the argument, made by Malcolm Turnbull and others (and now topical again in Australia), that a head of state with their own popular mandate poses a threat to parliamentary democracy. Zeman does little to hide his inflated sense of his own importance.

It’s an odd sort of election; five of the nine parliamentary parties have not endorsed anyone, including the governing party, ANO. But ANO’s leader, prime minister Andrej Babiš, announced at the last minute that he would be voting for Zeman, despite their often stormy relationship. He also has the support of the far-right Freedom & Direct Democracy.

Zeman’s likely rival in the runoff is Jiří Drahoš, a centrist independent and former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences; he has been endorsed by the Christian Democrats and by Mayors and Independents. Also in the mix are Michal Horáček, another independent, and Mirek Topolánek, a former centre-right prime minister, but going by the latest polls it seems that Drahoš has their measure.

And that will set up a gripping second round. No-one will be able to say that Czechs don’t have a clear choice, since Drahoš could hardly be more different from the Trumpian Zeman: liberal, pro-western, supportive of the EU and sympathetic to refugees.

Hypothetical polls (never entirely reliable) have generally given Drahoš the advantage. As Czech analyst Jiri Pehe says (as quoted by AFP), “It is a clash between … the post-communist part of society represented by Zeman and the other part, say, modern, pro-Western, which simply doesn’t want this president any more.”

But Czech politics is going through a Baroque phase; the time when it had the most conventional-looking two-party system of all the ex-Communist countries now looks impossibly remote. Five years ago, Zeman won the job with the support of his predecessor, free-marketeer and former dissident Václav Klaus; although by most measures they would seem opposites, they were united by their hatred of Islam.

On that occasion Zeman scored 54.8% in the runoff to beat liberal foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg. Having seen more of what the president is like, Czechs may now be having second thoughts. Either way, the rest of Europe will be watching closely.

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