As a long-respected figure in Czech academia who led the country’s Academy of Sciences for eight years, Jiří Drahoš might have been considered to have an unusual, but uncontroversial background for a politician.
In January, he ran for the Czech presidency, representing pro-European liberalism against an incumbent who has backed Donald Trump, railed against migrants, and been accused of shadowy ties to Moscow.
Professor Drahoš, a newcomer to politics, almost unseated Miloš Zeman, winning 48.6 per cent of the vote in a second round run-off.
Tall and silver-haired, he seems steady and unflappable in person. But, speaking to Times Higher Education in Olomouc, a city in the east of the country, even Professor Drahoš appeared shocked at what happened to him during the campaign.
Professor Drahoš said that in the final stretch of his campaign, he found himself the victim of an extraordinary campaign of digital fake news – much of which focused on his background.
As he tells it, politics in the age of online misinformation is now so dirty that trying to run for office using the old tools of verifiable facts and honest debate is all but impossible.
Fake news appeared not just on social media platforms such as Facebook, but through a “very professionally” organised campaign that Professor Drahoš estimates sent 1.5 million emails to voters.
“They used all possible aspects from my life,” he said. As a Humboldt fellow, Professor Drahoš, a physical chemist, spent a year in Hanover during the late 1980s – a fact that his opponents claimed was evidence that he had been a communist secret service agent. “Not only that, they accused me of paedophilia,” he added – the blackmail material supposedly used by the secret service to enlist him into their service.
Other opponents used a picture of Professor Drahoš and Angela Merkel at a chemistry conference, claiming that it showed the pair plotting to flood the Czech Republic with migrants. Another smear was that Professor Drahoš was paid by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist who has become the favoured pro-refugee bogeyman of the Hungarian government.
“Nothing was true,” he said, but rebutting the claims on his website did not help. “You cannot fight against it,” he said. “How? Should I send emails saying it is not true?”
Professor Drahoš does not accuse Mr Zeman himself of orchestrating the attacks, and acknowledged that there was no evidence of who was behind them. But he pointed out that his opponent was pro-Russian, whereas he was strongly pro-European Union and Nato. “I have no doubt that they [the Russian government] did it here, but to put some evidence on the table, it’s difficult,” he said.
Professor Drahoš’ election defeat does not necessarily show that Czechs have had enough of experts – several other rectors and deans have run successfully for election in the country.
There is still a strong national tradition of respect for academics, Professor Drahoš said. “At least for some people, I represent moral authority and scientific authority and managerial authority,” he said.
And, although he was defeated, he still meets young people fired up politically by the campaign. “They are now very active and want to stay within public life,” he said.
As for his future plans, Professor Drahoš has helped to found an organisation called “All together for Czechia”, which he hopes can tackle the problem of fake news using lifelong education.
He will also stand as an independent candidate for the senate elections later this year (although supported by a few centre-right parties). The senate is crucial to the future of the country, he said, because it a body that cannot be dissolved by the president; it is a “guarantee of democracy”.
The Czech Republic is going through its own political upheaval, with the collapse of existing centre-left and centre-right parties in last year’s vote, and the election of an outspoken billionaire, Andrej Babiš, as prime minister.
Professor Drahoš stressed that the country was a long way from following the self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, which could close Budapest’s Central European University.
Mr Babiš’ ANO party are “populistic”, he said, but not “extremists”. “There are reasonable people” in the party, he said, “it’s a mix of people”. The bigger danger is if it has to rely on extreme nationalist or communist parties to form a stable government, said Professor Drahoš.
But the situation is grave enough that he feels he has to stay in politics. “Frankly speaking...I never thought that almost 30 years after the Velvet Revolution, the political situation would be very frail, and the stability of the senate may play a very important role,” he said.
Professor Drahoš was speaking at THE's Research Excellence: New Europe Summit.