Prague (AFP) – An anti-migrant incumbent takes on a scientist calling for solidarity with migrants and slamming intolerance in the Czech presidential election on Friday and Saturday, following a campaign largely focused on migration.
The 2015 migrant crisis that swept Europe — but not the Czech Republic — will be “a very important topic, even the crucial one” of the final phase of the campaign, said independent analyst Jiri Pehe.
“We may expect a series of attacks and counter-attacks” centred on migration.
Echoing popular opinion, President Milos Zeman is stridently anti-Muslim, having once called the migrant crisis “an organised invasion” of Europe and insisted Muslims were “impossible to integrate”.
He ruled out Prague accepting migrants, fearing they might form “a hotbed for terror attacks” in Europe.
“When Milos Zeman wants to mobilise his supporters, he presents himself as a defender of the country, as if he were ready to protect the border with a gun in his hand,” said Pehe.
In contrast, his rival Jiri Drahos, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS), has spoken up against “fear, hysterics and intolerance sparked by populists and extremists”.
But with public opinion set firmly against migrants, the EU-friendly Drahos also opposes the bloc’s migrant quotas, telling the latest edition of the Tyden weekly: “I reject quotas, they haven’t worked from the beginning.”
However, unlike Zeman, Drahos leaves the door open to accepting some migrants but insists that “we must decide who can get asylum in the Czech Republic and nobody can dictate who we must accept.”
– Split families –
A recent poll by the CAS has shown that 81 percent of Czechs oppose accepting Muslim migrants.
The EU and NATO country of 10.6 million people has received only 12 migrants under the bloc’s quota system, prompting Brussels to take Prague to court in December along with Budapest and Warsaw. They could all be slapped with heavy fines.
Even families are split on the migrant issue.
“I like Zeman’s firmness on this. I want my country to stay safe. I’m afraid Drahos will obey everything that Brussels orders,” says Martina Horankova from the northwestern city of Usti nad Labem.
“Drahos will be able to distinguish between refugees and those bogus economic migrants,” replies her husband Stanislav Horanek.
Drahos was previously less strident in his rejection of the quota system, saying in June 2017 that “accepting some 2,600 refugees or migrants should not pose any problems if they undergo a security check.”
Ahead of the run-off, Zeman is playing the migration card for all it is worth, insisting that “it is logical and justified to draw links between Mr Drahos and migration.”
“Stop immigrants and Drahos. This country is ours! Vote Zeman!” reads an ad published in newspapers and on billboards across the country and financed by a mysterious group called “Milos Zeman’s Friends”.
“The campaign has been fair up to now. But this is filthy,” said Marek Hilser, who finished fifth out of nine candidates in the first round of the presidential vote on January 12-13.
– Under pressure –
Many Zeman supporters see Drahos as a “vitac”, a newly-coined Czech word meaning “a welcomer” of migrants.
They blame him for having signed the “Scientists’ Appeal against Fear and Indifference” in August 2015, which they perceive as an appeal to accept migrants.
But Drahos argues that there is “not a single word about accepting migrants” in the text.
“Drahos will probably find himself under pressure over migrants,” Pehe told AFP but points out that he can strike back by questioning “the origin of the money used to finance the anti-Drahos ads in the papers (that) is not entirely clear.”
Zeman, an ex-communist known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese stance, won the first round of the presidential vote with 38.56-percent support ahead of Drahos with 26.60 percent.
Polls show Drahos can count on the support of most of the other seven candidates who dropped out in round one, which would put him ahead of the incumbent.