PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC —
Pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman was re-elected Czech president on Saturday, narrowly outpacing his pro-European liberal rival Jiri Drahos in a knife-edge runoff that underscored deep divisions in the European Union and NATO state.
The Kremlin was quick to offer its congratulations in a statement, saying that "Vladimir Putin emphasized Russia's appreciation for Mr. Zeman's stance favoring friendly Russian-Czech relations."
The populist ex-communist Zeman took 51.36 percent of the vote against 48.63 percent for Drahos, Czech Television reported, quoting full official results.
Czech TV pegged turnout for round two at 66.6 percent, the highest figure since parliamentary elections in 1998.
Political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP the outcome reflected the "very deep polarization" of Czech society, which is "split down the middle" along rural-urban and populist-liberal lines, echoing divisions elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S.
A former leftist prime minister, Zeman, 73, represents poorer and rural voters with a lower level of education, while academic and political novice Drahos, 68, appeals to wealthier, well-educated urbanites.
Zeman's victory came amid a political crisis as billionaire populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis — dubbed the "Czech Trump" — is fighting police charges of EU subsidy fraud that are hampering his ability to form a government.
Speaking to a jubilant crowd at his Prague campaign headquarters, a jovial Zeman vowed to give political ally Babis plenty of time to cobble together a government.
He also struck an overtly populist tone by insisting that the "intelligence of journalists ... [and] some politicians is significantly lower than that of normal citizens."
Congratulating Zeman on his narrow win, Drahos told backers in Prague that "we haven't won, but we haven't lost either," pledging he would not retreat from public life.
In the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe, the anti-Muslim Zeman staunchly opposed EU quotas designed to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.
Even though the country of 10.6 million people has received only 12 migrants under the EU quota system, migration was a key campaign issue.
Zeman's stance on the European Union echoes those of other populist politicians in Poland and Hungary who are at odds with Brussels over the refugee quotas and various rules that they see as attempts to limit national sovereignty.
He once called the 2015 migrant crisis "an organized invasion" of Europe, claiming Muslims were "impossible to integrate."
'This is our country'
Billboards across the Czech Republic sought to appeal to voters with anti-migrant messages: "Stop immigrants and Drahos. This is our country. Vote Zeman!"
According to Pehe, his position cast Zeman as "the defender of Czech national interests in the eyes of his supporters."
The pro-European Drahos had also opposed the EU quota system but had insisted the Czech Republic was strong enough to accept its allotted 2,600 refugees.
Drahos underscored his concerns about possible Russian meddling in the campaign, saying that "for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's regime, NATO is the biggest enemy and we are part of NATO."
Petr Vasicek, a Prague artist, told AFP that he chose the "educated and intelligent" Drahos over Zeman, who is "pro-Russian and pro-Chinese, which I don't like at all."
Zeman has repeatedly called on the EU to lift its sanctions on Russia over its 2014 takeover of Crimea from Ukraine.
Voter Daniel Hajek said he had chosen Zeman "because he's opening the door to economic cooperation with countries like Russia and China.
"It's important for us, for jobs; our country is at the heart of Europe but we can't go in just one direction," he said in Prague.
Europe's fifth-biggest carmaker is dependent on auto exports, mainly to the eurozone, and its economy is expected to expand by 3.4 percent this year.
Running under the slogan "Decency is a strength," Drahos, a mild-mannered 68-year-old professor of chemical engineering who cuts a trim figure, could not have been more different from Zeman, who is diabetic, walks with a cane and has become known as a heavy drinker and smoker.
Drahos fought off allegations of pedophilia and having been a communist police agent, suggesting the accusations were a smear campaign by Russian intelligence with links to Zeman.
The president appoints the prime minister, central bank board members and judges and signs bills passed by parliament into law.