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Exclusive: Jiri Drahos—The dark horse in the Czech presidential elections

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Exclusive: Jiri Drahos—The dark horse in the Czech presidential elections

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By Dariusz Kalan for Euronews

PRAGUE—Czech President Milos Zeman’s reelection bid faces a battle. There are eight other contenders joining the first round of the presidential elections this weekend, but it may be Zeman himself who’s his most dangerous opponent.

The incumbent’s blunt views on Muslims, Roma, media freedom and the European Union—along with contentious support to Russia’s Vladimir Putin—discourage many moderate voters and provoke questions, both home and abroad, about whether the 73-year-old is mentally and physically fit to continue as the country’s leader.

Many critics also fear that a Zeman win, in addition to a landslide victory of billionaire Andrej Babis in parliamentary elections last October, would set the country on an anti-liberal path similar to Hungary and Poland.

“Babis and Zeman support each other, and this is tragic to our liberal democracy. Both are authoritarian and have no appreciation for parliamentary procedures," Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a former advisor to the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, told Euronews.

Drahos: A low-key newcomer without scandal

Among Zeman’s rivals is an independent political newcomer: Jiri Drahos. According to January 8 polls, Zeman will easily win the first round—but in the second he will be edged out by the 68-year-old chemist and former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Drahos is a moderate running with hardly any political experience and, what opponents call, a lack of charisma.

“His major quality, though, is that he’s no Zeman," said Pehe.

Drahos’ low-key persona and academic background oppose not only Zeman, but, generally, current trends in Central Europe, a region marked with personalities of two strongmen: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The two have touted an "illiberal" state, anti-intellecutalism and rhetoric against the elite—nothing what Drahos can be associated with.

“I consider myself a representative of the world which is going to come,” Drahos said in an exclusive interview to Euronews. As a political blank state he wants to follow the steps of Slovakian President Andrej Kiska (elected in 2014) and Austrian’s President Alexander Van der Bellen (2017), who also won as non-mainstream candidates.

“People are willing to have as their president someone not connected with any scandal whatsoever. I’m an outsider, and this is my biggest advantage," he added.

Jiri Drahos

For years, Drahos kept away from politics and his move to run for presidency came as a surprise. He was neither a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia during the communist period, nor had he joined any of the new democratic movements that were established after the 1989 velvet revolution, a non-violent transition of power in then-Czechoslovakia.

“For people of my generation, the term “party” always had a rather negative association. I was twice approached by the communists, but declined. Later, I didn’t want to put myself into any sort of party politics either,” he said.

Instead, he settled for an academic career. A graduate of the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, he calmly went through the career ladder from junior scientist to head of the chemical institute to a president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, a post he took twice between 2009 and 2017. At that time, he was honoured with the Medal of Merit, one of the highest state awards in the country.

Chemistry was not his first choice, though. For a while, he considered a musical career. “I played the trumpet, but I had a great chemistry teacher at the secondary school. His enthusiasm struck me so much that I decided I want to follow his path”. Drahos no longer plays a musical instrument—but sings with the choir.

Now, in his late 60s, he could easily spend his time more comfortably, singing, reading and being with his wife Eva, their two daughters and two grandsons, without dabbling in politics. But he was approached by people, who, he says said, “saw how parties work and couldn’t find any good candidate”.

“Of course, everyone has egos and personal ambitions, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is whether you are suitable for the job. Whether you have proper moral and managerial qualities.”

'A little mouse with no views'

Zeman’s spokesperson, Jiri Ovcacek, refused to talk about Drahos, saying in an email that “there's no time in my programme”. However, last year he called Drahos “an artificial product of the media”, a “little mouse with no views” and “a ficus”, suggesting that as president he would be weak and not able to balance a political heavyweight like Babis.

“I’m a fighter”, Drahos said decidedly.

He recalled that as head of the Czech Academy of Sciences he was faced with radical budget cuts proposed by the government. “This would mean the end of this institution. We started to protest and lobby, I met with all the decision makers—and we won. I remember politicians saying I play tough, but fair."

Drahos was born in Jablunkov, a small region near the border with Poland, in the multiethnic region of Zaolzie. The region in the 20th century was known for turbulent disputes between Czechs and Poles, and during the Second World War experienced a short yet very brutal occupation by the Germans. Drahos' father was a teacher and his mother a nurse.

“I came from the Beskid mountains, and we have this saying that people born there are stubborn as rams,” he said.

'We must defend our culture'

Drahos is more conventional than Zeman when it comes to politics. The challenger unequivocally supports the EU and NATO membership and criticises Russia for meddling in EU elections. This is, paradoxically, an avant-garde position. The Czechs are much less excited about being part of the Western club than any other member nation: last year, only 33% of them consider being in the EU as positive, the lowest of all member states.

“Yes, the Czech people are pretty sceptical, but I think this is because Czechs are sceptical and ironic on everything, including their own history,” Drahos said while grinning. “But, in all seriousness, this is also due to some politicians who kept repeating how bad the EU is, which is not true.”

He follows the popular moods, though, in rejecting both to join the eurozone and the EU agenda on migration, saying that “we must defend our culture”.

“We should talk on how to preserve our identity. We know how things look like in France and other countries with danger zones. We don’t want to have it here,” he said, adding that EU migrant quotas from the beginning were a “bad idea”.

According to Tomas Prouza, former Czech state secretary for European affairs, Drahos’ views are only one side of the coin in the presidential race, which has always been more about personality than a detailed agenda.

“I don’t think the Czech president should be involved in each little detail of daily politics,” Prouza told Euronews. “He should be above the parties defending the democracy, free speech, free media and other elements of our democratic order as well as our EU and NATO-based foreign policy.”

The key role of this election, Prouza added, is to restore dignity of the presidential office. “We badly need somebody that will be respected.”

The country has had some larger-than-life heads of state, such as philosopher Tomas Masaryk or dissident playwright Vaclav Havel.

“Drahos would represent the type of presidency which was established with the independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 with slightly monarchical features. When the president spoke, people listened. This is the Czech traditional model that was ceased with Zeman’s tenure,” Pehe said.

Both Pehe and Prouza are far from being convinced of Drahos' predicted victory or even entering the second round. Five years ago, former Czech prime minister Jan Fischer took a lead in the polls in the weeks and even the day before election day, but eventually came third.

“Drahos could be a powerful voice to protect democracy and our Western orientation," Prouza said. "If he is elected—and if he is courageous enough."