March 8, 2018 / 12:26 PM / 9 months ago

Czech Pres Zeman to be sworn in for final term, may exert freer hand

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech President Milos Zeman will be sworn in for a second term on Thursday, and may feel he has a freer hand in his final period in office to promote his Moscow-friendly and anti-immigration views.

Czech presidential candidate and incumbent Milos Zeman attends a televised debate ahead of an election run-off, in Prague, Czech Republic January 23, 2018. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Zeman, the last prominent politician from the country’s post-communist transition days in the 1990s, won re-election in January with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and courtship of eastern powers like China and Russia.

The 73-year-old trained economist and former center-left prime minister promised he would unite society when taking office five years ago.

Instead he has proved a polarizing force, belittling his opponents and sniping at intellectual elites and the media.

He was one of the few European politicians to back Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

He has also shifted further right on issues like immigration amid a refugee crisis in Europe. The Czechs have joined others in central Europe in refusing to take in refugees.

In January, Zeman defeated pro-European Union academic Jiri Drahos in a vote reflecting concerns over security despite a period of fast economic growth and rising wages.

The result also helped Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who had backed Zeman.

Babis was the runaway winner in October parliamentary elections, but he is still searching for support for a government after his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in January.

Zeman has promised Babis time for a second attempt and could exert some influence over his former party the Social Democrats, who have started talks with Babis’s ANO party.

Political analyst Stanislav Balik said that with Zeman not able to run again for after his two terms, he may be even more forceful with his views. Balik said missing inauguration invitations for some officials who opposed him in the past was evidence.

“The inauguration already shows that he does not seek any reconciliation, that he keeps alive his petty quarrels,” he said. “He just does what he thinks is right and also what his inner circle pushes him to do.”

Zeman has upset many with his courtship of eastern powers like China and Russia. He has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called to end EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea.

Like Trump, Zeman advocates moving his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, although that decision lies with the government.

His stance toward Brussels has also been lukewarm. He calls himself a federalist and supports membership in the EU but he also favours holding an in-or-out referendum on membership like the one that led to Britain’s impending exit from the bloc.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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