If a President Is Dying, and Nobody Says Anything, Does It Make a Sound?

The Czech Republic's populist president is running for re-election — and his ailing health is an open secret.

Czech President and presidential candidate in next Czech presidential election Milos Zeman addresses a press conference announcing a petition to support his presidential candidacy on Nov. 6, 2017 in Prague. (Micahl Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Czech President and presidential candidate in next Czech presidential election Milos Zeman addresses a press conference announcing a petition to support his presidential candidacy on Nov. 6, 2017 in Prague. (Micahl Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump isn’t the only populist, pro-Kremlin president confronted by serious questions about his health. This one, though, is facing re-election in a few days.

“I’m still young and full of strength,” 73-year-old Czech President Milos Zeman declared after besting pro-European candidate Jiri Drahos in the first round of the country’s presidential elections on Jan. 13. But the abrasive, pro-Kremlin, anti-Muslim Zeman hasn’t been his usual self in recent months. The self-confessed heavy drinker and smoker has lost weight and been seen propping himself up against podiums and walking arm in arm with aides, as if leaning on them to stop himself from falling. He even had to have his aides carry him out of his chair after a public meeting last November.

His office insists his only health issues are diabetes and related neuropathy in his legs that forces him to use a cane — in other words, nothing new and nothing life-threatening. But most Czechs don’t buy it; according to a recent poll, only a minority of Czechs think Zeman is healthy enough to even finish another term in office. Either way, they’re worried about how his health would affect his performance, especially because his apparent virility had been among his populist credentials. “It’s clear that Zeman’s poor health has been a major issue for many Czechs,” Jiri Pehe, a former political advisor to Czech President Vaclav Havel, said in an email to Foreign Policy.

It is also an issue that, however central it has become to the election campaign, has only been addressed furtively; it is the subject of a ubiquitous whisper campaign, not television advertisements. Zeman’s health could cost him the election or give Czechs back a president many of them think is literally on his last legs. But despite the high stakes, Czechs’ sense of propriety — both moral and legal — has trumped their calculations of political advantage and national interest.

Zeman has relished in controversy over his long political career and especially since becoming the first directly elected Czech president in 2013. In a country where anti-Muslim sentiment is mainstream, he has urged Czechs to take up arms against a possible “super-Holocaust” from Muslim terrorists. Unabashedly pro-Kremlin, he has repeatedly called for lifting EU sanctions against Russia and said, contrary to his own government’s position, that Crimea should be considered part of Russia. He has pushed the constitutional limits of his position as head of state and embarrassed many younger Czechs with some of his more foul-mouthed statements.

But Zeman’s unhealthy lifestyle borders on the stuff of legend and gives him an air of authenticity in the eyes of his predominantly rural, older supporters. An unrepentant chain smoker, Zeman once bizarrely claimed that starting smoking in adulthood is “without any risk whatsoever.” During the 2013 campaign, Zeman confessed that he drank six glasses of wine a day in addition to a glass of slivovice (plum brandy) every few days. “His drinking, his smoking, is all part of his public image,” says Sean Hanley, a senior lecturer in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

That public image, however, took a hit early in his presidency, Hanley says. In an infamous incident, Zeman appeared to be drunk at a special state ceremony to inspect the Bohemian crown jewels, at one point apparently stumbling over a cable and having to steady himself on a chair. His staff attributed Zeman’s actions to a “virus.”

Zeman has since claimed he’s cut down on his alcohol and tobacco consumption after being diagnosed in 2013 with diabetes and neuropathy in his legs, which his office has long insisted are his only health problems. “I can confirm that the president feels very good. He is in very good physical and mental condition,” Zeman’s doctor, Martin Holcat, told a press conference a few days before the first round of voting in early January.

Many Czechs are skeptical of this rosy diagnosis. “The president’s office isn’t giving us all the information,” Tomas Cikrt, the editor in chief of a health news site and former spokesman for the Czech Health Ministry, told a Czech news website. National media outlets, including the country’s public service news agency, have pointed to the president’s schedule in the latter half of 2017, which appeared “less hectic” than earlier in the year, when Zeman appeared “very tired” during several international visits. Others have noted that in his regular trips to small towns to meet with his supporters, he now tends to limit his appearances to a maximum of one hour.

Other Czechs have made more salacious accusations. A local councillor in Brno publicly posted on Facebook that Zeman had cancer and only a few months to live; the councillor has since deleted the post, Zeman’s doctors have denied that he has cancer, and Zeman has since declared he’s planning to sue him. There’s even been buzz on social media that Zeman has had to have a leg amputated because of his diabetes — a claim that’s been roundly dismissed by journalists and Zeman himself.

But others haven’t been shy about asking some biting if rude questions. A columnist at Reflex, a controversial right-leaning weekly that has made many enemies of Czech politicians, had something to say about an official photo of Zeman recently posted on Twitter by Jiri Ovcacek, Zeman’s combative spokesman. Columnist Jiri X. Dolezal couldn’t help but comment about how unwell he thought Zeman looked. “From the picture stares a frightened gaze of a decrepit old man,” wrote Dolezal, “who’s literally staring death in the face. It’s pretty obvious he can’t do anything other than sit in a chair.”

And there’s reason to think that the questions could turn off some potential voters. “The biggest weakness of Zeman is his health,” political scientist Stanislav Balik told Reflex. “His image is too much associated with being a political alpha male,” said Balik, suggesting that if some of his supporters view his health more and more negatively, it could undermine the very reasons they would vote for him in the first place.

What’s clear is that if Zeman manages to win re-election — and if his health is as bad as many Czechs believe — it could impact his ability to do his job. One of the main constitutional responsibilities of the Czech president is to represent the country abroad, from business junkets to state visits, as well as negotiate and ratify international agreements. But what happens if a re-elected Zeman barely has the energy to sit in a chair and chat for more than an hour during a stressful international meeting? It could mean that close Zeman aides such as Martin Nejedly may step in to pick up the slack and exert even more influence than before. Nejedly, the former chief executive of the Czech branch of Russian energy giant Lukoil, has long been considered a shadowy pro-Kremlin figure — and his role in Zeman’s office has long worried international intelligence agencies.

Still, Drahos, Zeman’s opponent, hasn’t attacked him over his health, and it doesn’t seem that will change in the campaign’s final days. His campaign claims to be upholding high-minded principles. “This negative turn could scare away those who expect the president to not be involved in a daily political swamp,” Dariusz Kalan, a journalist who interviewed and profiled Drahos before the first round, told FP. “This is the image he’s seeking to stick with, I believe.” But some suspect he may be worried about the legal consequences of evoking Zeman’s health — especially if Zeman wins re-election and can use his political power to exact punishment.

There’s also a risk that going negative about Zeman’s health will alienate some voters. Some commentators have argued that older voters — who tend to support Zeman — might perceive his health issues more compassionately and that any effort by Drahos to target Zeman’s health might backfire and deny Drahos some of the votes he needs to win the presidency.

Zeman’s fitness for the job is being put to the test in two televised debates before Czechs go to the polls — debates, observers say, he was essentially forced to take part in after getting a lower-than-expected 39 percent of the vote in the first round. Zeman had refused to take part in any debates before the first round of voting. If Zeman comes across as too unwell or incapable in the debates, says Milos Gregor, it could damage his prospects. “In the debates, it will be a question of how he looks and appears,” Gregor, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno, told FP.

It’ll also be a question of how long Zeman can last; political scientist Josef Mlejnek argues that a debate that lasts significantly longer than an hour might be a problem for Zeman. Tuesday night’s debate, in which the two candidates were seated, lasted approximately 70 minutes.

But if Zeman wins re-election, he certainly won’t be vacating the limelight. He and his campaign team are likely to be investigated over new accusations that they’ve been less than transparent about their finances, including over a shadily funded series of Drahos-bashing attack ads.

And the presidential elections are taking place at an already difficult time for the country. The Czech president has a key role in overseeing the formation of governments — and the country’s prime minister and Zeman ally, Andrej Babis, has lost his first confidence vote and his parliamentary immunity after being accused of fraud by the European Anti-Fraud Office. And given Zeman’s record of using his constitutional powers to punish his enemies and reward his allies, it means — should he win — no one can really be sure where he would steer the Czech Republic next. And that’s assuming Zeman is healthy enough to manage the process at all.

Michael Colborne is a journalist in eastern Europe who focuses on the far right and has written extensively about Ukraine's Azov movement.

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