By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czech President Milos Zeman, one of Donald Trump’s greatest admirers in Europe, is likely to announce a re-election bid this week after a first term marked by sniping at journalists, warnings on Muslim immigration and a growing friendship with Russia.
Zeman, 72, has promised to tell supporters behind closed doors on Thursday whether he will run again in January 2018 for a post which nominally has limited powers but can hold considerable influence over the country’s often shaky multi-party governments.
Aides to the president, who consistently tops polls as the most trusted politician in the European Union member state, have urged him to seek a second, five-year term.
If Zeman chooses to do so, he faces no obvious competitor. In the meantime, he has the task in the final months of his first term of appointing a new Czech prime minister after parliamentary elections in October.
The president’s office declined a Reuters request for an interview at least until after Zeman has officially announced his decision at a news conference on Friday.
However, senior members of the main Czech parties say they expect him to run, while betting firm Fortuna makes him the 1.65-1 favorite. Several signs point to re-election ambitions.
He has set up a weekly TV show to be co-hosted by the wife of his chief of staff. Then, despite acknowledging trouble in walking due to a diabetes-related condition, Zeman appeared in a photo issued by his office last month standing on cross-country skis, although it did not show him in action.
Zeman’s folksy image, with his taste for pork delicacies, smoking and alcohol, has long struck a chord with Czechs.
In politics since 1990, he has moved from the head of the pro-European, center-left Social Democrats to an independent with views on issues such as Europe’s migrant crisis and EU sanctions on Russia closer to the far-right or to the Communists who once ruled the country.
Zeman declared his support for Trump during last year’s U.S. presidential campaign, earning him the first invitation to the White House for a Czech president in over a decade.
“I agree with his opinion on migration and the fight against Islamic terrorism,” he said after Trump’s victory, also accusing Czech TV of biased U.S. election coverage.
Before becoming president, Zeman described Islam as “anti-civilization” and when challenged about this 2011 comment, he said there was no such thing as a moderate Muslim, just like there were no moderate Nazis.
While few if any other EU presidents have used such language, a number of neighboring governments such as in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have also criticized a plan hatched at the height of the migrant crisis for asylum seekers to be accommodated around the bloc under a quota system.
“The European Commission has no right to dictate to a sovereign state how many migrants it should place on its territory,” Zeman said last week.
His warning in 2015 that a wave of migration mainly from the Middle East and north Africa would sweep the Czech Republic also went down well with many voters, even though there were no signs the country was becoming a major destination for asylum seekers.
“He is against migrants, so that we won’t have so many Muslims here,” Milena Svarcova, 50, said last month at a Zeman rally in the northern town of Nova Paka.
It is on foreign and security policy, and especially on relations with Moscow, where he has been most at odds with government policies. He has advocated letting Czechs vote in a referendum on EU and NATO membership, although he said he would be in favor of staying in both.
Zeman opposes EU sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine – measures which the coalition government led by Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka supports.
In 2015, Zeman was the only EU head of state to attend Moscow events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, meeting President Vladimir Putin. He also criticized the Czech Interior Ministry for launching a unit to identify fake news, which the secret service says often originates in Russia.
“Many of his views are deeply convenient for Moscow,” said Russia specialist Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute for International Relations in Prague, adding that the Russians appreciate “the extent to which they can use his statements as further ammunition in their information warfare”.
Zeman’s spokesman Jiri Ovcacek took issue with this. “Mr. President defends the interests of the Czech Republic, and no other country,” he said. Zeman had friendly relationships with both Trump and Putin, as well as with China and Israel, he said, describing this as a “big advantage”.
THE MAIN SAY
Czech governments have the main say on domestic and foreign policy. But the president appoints a number of senior officials such as the central bank board and nominates ambassadors and constitutional court judges.
His greatest opportunity to influence events may come after the parliamentary election in which no party is likely to secure a majority.
“It will be Zeman choosing the prime minister candidate and he may want to tie this appointment with support for himself,” said political scientist Kamil Svec, from Charles University.
Czech presidents have discretion in whom to ask to form a government. In 2010 Zeman’s predecessor passed over the largest party in parliament in favor of the second biggest. Three years later Zeman himself appointed a caretaker prime minister against the wishes of all the main parties.
This time opinion polls suggest the ANO movement, the Social Democrats’ junior partner in the current coalition, is likely to become the biggest party in October.
Its leader, Finance Minister Andrej Babis, is a billionaire businessman like Trump. Last month Babis said he had moved his assets into trust funds to comply with a new conflict-of-interest law that he has criticized as aimed at him.
Under a rallying cry of “Let’s make the Czech Republic great again” – borrowing from Trump’s campaign slogan – Babis has vowed to cut taxes and said after last December’s deadly Islamist attack in Berlin that migrants had no place in Europe.
As such, Babis might find favor with Zeman, who has also called on a small party of the president’s supporters to join forces with the far-right SPD party for the general election.
But Zeman’s intentions remain a mystery, should he go for another term under a Czech constitution that allows presidents to serve only two consecutive terms.
That means Zeman would no longer have to worry about facing the electorate again, said political analyst Josef Mlejnek Jr..
“It is a big unknown, what he will do and I would worry about that, because in the second term, he would not be bound by re-election, he would not be bound by anything,” Mlejnek said.
(Editing by Jan Lopatka and David Stamp)