Czech presidential vote: All to play for after 10 years of Zeman

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Czechs go to the polls over the next two days to elect a successor to President Milos Zeman, whose second term ends in March.

Seven men and one woman are in the race to succeed him, and a second-round run-off is likely in a fortnight’s time.

The president is now elected by public vote and it has become part personality contest, part endurance race.

The three front-runners include an ex-Nato general, an economist and a billionaire former prime minister.

“It would be great to finally have a president who respects the constitution, rather than testing the limits of it,” says Olympic beach volleyball player Ondrej Perusic.

His sport is all about staying within lines in the sand, and he believes politics should too.

Both Milos Zeman, president since 2013, and his predecessor Vaclav Klaus constantly pushed and nudged at the boundaries to see what they could get away with, Perusic complains, thanks in part to the rather vague wording of the Czech founding document.

The 1993 constitution gives the president a degree of wiggle room and influence that exceeds what was envisaged as a largely ceremonial post.

President Zeman is currently embroiled in a row over who gets to appoint the next chairman of the constitutional court. He says he’s fully entitled to fill the position, even though his term ends in less than two months.

His opponents disagree. The constitution is silent on the matter.

Although Ondrej Perusic will be in Qatar for the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Finals, he will still be able to vote at the Czech embassy in the predicted second round run-off.

Watching the finals from Prague will be Darina Vymetalikova, a sports reporter, presenter and commentator for Czech TV.

“The worlds of sport and politics – they’re not actually all that different,” she told me at the end of the lunchtime sports segment on rolling news channel CT24.

It was not that long ago that sport and politics here were very closely connected, and Vymetalikova wrote her dissertation on how that link played out in the early years of Czechoslovakia’s communist dictatorship.

“Sport, like politics, is the perfect environment for the distribution of symbols, in a metaphorical sense, and there’s also a great deal of emotion tied up in it. Whether they’re the attributes of nationhood, or character, or gender.”

For her it is a shame that only one female candidate – former Brno university rector Danuse Nerudova – is among the eight contenders for the presidency.

She believes this is largely due to a lack of a level playing field for Czech women who wish to throw everything into a political career.

For many, family still comes first, she said, and not all women have a supportive boss or the luxury of childcare to leave them free to pursue their professional ambitions.

But the TV presenter answered diplomatically when I asked whether that meant Ms Nerudova was assured of her vote.

According to opinion polls, Danuse Nerudova is in the top three candidates, but the odds of her becoming the country’s first female leader have fallen, after a few stumbles in the media over claims of plagiarism at her university.

The front-runner is silver-bearded, retired Nato general Petr Pavel, who remains the favourite despite revelations that he had received training in military intelligence during the communist era.

Pavol Bosko, chief bookmaker at the country’s largest betting company TipSport, has devised odds on the race with his two colleagues, using a finely honed system of correcting algorithms created by opinion polls and betting trends with their political instincts and common sense.

As a Slovak, he is barred from voting; as a bookmaker, he is barred from placing a bet.

“We don’t get it right 100% of the time. It’s still up to how a mass of eight million voters will behave on polling day.”

Combative former Prime Minister Andrej Babis makes up the trio of front-runners. He was acquitted of EU subsidy fraud this week, which analysts say might improve his chances if he makes it to the second round.

But Pavol remains quietly confident of his algorithms. He says Petr Pavel is odds-on favourite for good reason. And five years ago his predictions of a convincing Zeman victory proved correct.

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