The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, has been accused of promoting a climate of “vulgarity, incompetence and corruption” as the Czech Republic heads into a presidential election widely seen as a referendum on his controversial brand of anti-immigrant populism and the country’s place in the western alliance.
The scathing critique has been issued by a rival candidate, Jiří Drahoš, a former chairman of the Czech academy of sciences, who has emerged as the main challenger to Zeman in this week’s poll, to be held on Friday and Saturday.
Defeat for Zeman could profoundly affect Czech politics, particularly the future of the recently installed prime minister, Andrej Babiš, who heads a minority government heavily dependent on the current president’s support for its survival.
Drahoš told the Guardian that, if elected, he would not allow Babiš, a billionaire businessman and the Czech Republic’s second richest man, to continue as prime minister because he is facing criminal fraud charges over €2m (£1.8m) of European Union grants given to a farm and conference complex he owns south of Prague.
Drahoš pledged to “restore the moral authority” once associated with former Czech leaders such as the late Vaclav Havel, which he said had been squandered by Zeman’s penchant for incendiary statements and the rise of populist parties in parliament.
He vowed to reverse the president’s friendly approach to Russia and instead reaffirm the Czech Republic’s commitment to the EU and Nato. Zeman has called for referendums on continued membership of both.
Drahoš’s stance is aimed at strengthening the Czech Republic’s pro-western orientation in contrast to its cold war membership of the pro-Moscow Warsaw Pact alliance, when the country was part of Czechoslovakia.
“For me, the Czech Republic must look not toward the east but to the west, to western democratic countries,” he said. “Without question, the Czech Republic needs to restore its moral authority, not just in the post of the president but also at the level of government and both houses of parliament.
“We say in Czech that ‘the fish stinks from the head’ and that perfectly sums up the current situation..”
Drahoš, 68, said one of his main criticisms was Zeman’s perceived closeness to the Kremlin, which he said threatened Czech democracy and was motivated on Russia’s side by a desire to destabilise the EU.
“President Zeman’s current stance toward Moscow is unacceptable,” he said. “This is one of the main reasons that he needs to be replaced. I have already warned that we can easily be manipulated by a Russian disinformation campaign and influence.
“We have seen this trend during the USA presidential election and in Germany, France and Catalonia. The Russians don’t want a strong, united and stable Europe.”
Zeman, 73, a former prime minister and Social Democrat leader, has caused consternation with his vocal opposition to western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of eastern Crimea from Ukraine.
One of his closest aides, Martin Nejedlý, is chief executive of the Czech subsidiary of the Russian energy firm Lukoil, fuelling unproven suspicions of hidden financial interests in the president’s relations with Moscow.
Despite such controversies, Zeman has retained the approval of a majority of Czech voters since his election in 2013 thanks to his hardline rhetoric against immigration and Islam, which are popular stances even though the country has only a small Muslim population.
Nevertheless, pollsters say Zeman is electorally vulnerable, citing a combination of widespread opposition to his anti-western attitudes and concerns over his advanced age and supposed ill-health.
“He is trusted by more than 50% of the voters but his electoral support is lower because a segment of his supporters don’t want him re-elected for various reasons – for example that he is too old and they want someone new,” said Jan Hartl, head of Stem, a Czech polling agency that has projected that Drahos could defeat Zeman by 48.5% to 44% in a second-round run-off.
A run-off poll will take place on 26 and 27 January if, as anticipated, no candidate in the nine-man field gets more than 50% in this weekend’s election. That would probably pit Zeman against Drahoš, who has consistently come second to the president in opinion surveys.
“If, say, Zeman and Drahoš go into the second round, all the opposing candidates would ask their supporters to back Drahoš – or indeed any opponent of Miloš Zeman,” Hartl said.
“A common denominator of all the anti-Zeman candidates is that they all fear our country is facing a crucial historical period when it’s not sure what its main orientation is – east or west. And Miloš Zeman is seen as the symbol of an eastward-looking politician.”