Czech President Zeman launches re-election bid

Jan Marchal
Czech President Milos Zeman will run for a second five-year term as president in 2018

Czech President Milos Zeman, an ex-communist known for staunch anti-Muslim, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views, announced Thursday he would run for a second five-year term in a presidential vote scheduled for next year.

"I have decided to run for president of the Czech Republic again," the 72-year-old veteran leftwinger told his fans at a party held four years after he took office as the EU member's first-ever directly elected president.

Known for supporting US President Donald Trump, Zeman once called the recent migrant wave in Europe an "organised invasion" and labelled the migrant-friendly policy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "nonsense".

Zeman's term has so far been marked by disputes with Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

The president has openly backed Sobotka's chief rival, the billionaire Andrej Babis, whose junior coalition ANO movement is widely tipped to win a parliamentary election in autumn.

Zeman's policy has struck a chord in small towns and villages but angered those living in Prague and other major cities.

Zeman's foes have questioned his health, since he suffers from impaired hearing and diabetic neuropathy, which forces him to walk with a cane.

- 'Permanent campaign' -

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Sobotka said Zeman's decision was no surprise.

"If Milos Zeman didn't run, the presidential election would be far more boring," Sobotka tweeted. "I wish him a lot of strength for the campaign and I'm curious about the other candidates."

In February, Zeman scored 54 percent in a confidence survey by the Czech Academy of Sciences, easily ahead of the government cabinet with 37 percent and the lower house of parliament with 26 percent.

"Right now there is no candidate who could beat him," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP.

"He has turned his entire term so far into a permanent campaign, and we may expect him to step it up during the final year."

Zeman's potential rivals in the presidential vote, scheduled to take place in early 2018, include Michal Horacek, a wealthy entrepreneur and the author of hit song lyrics.

Local media have also mentioned Defence Minister Martin Stropnicky and former Academy of Sciences head Jiri Drahos.

Born on September 28, 1944 in the central Czech town of Kolin, Zeman graduated from the Prague University of Economics.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, that toppled the totalitarian communist rule after four decades, he formed an influential trio with Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, his predecessors in the presidential chair.

A Communist Party member in 1968-1970, Zeman led the leftwing Social Democrats from 1993-2001, serving as the country's prime minister from 1998-2002.

Zeman is married to his former secretary Ivana, who is more than 20 years his junior.

He has son David and daughter Katerina from his first marriage.