Published: Sun, January 14, 2018
World | By Melba Underwood

Czech president willing to debate challenger

Czech president willing to debate challenger

Zeman, who served his first five-year term after being elected in 2013, has also being accused by opponents of being a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin - on Friday, the populist president was accosted while casting his vote by a topless woman who chanted "Putin's slut" before being wrangled to the floor by security.

Although Zeman was in pole position Saturday, the outspoken head of state was unlikely to win an outright majority, with a run-off expected on January 26-27.

The vote, likely to end in a run-off in two weeks, is seen as a referendum on 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has harshly criticized migration from Muslim countries and is keen to boost ties with Russian Federation and China.

Drahos, 68, a centrist and former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences who has promised to anchor the country in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was clearly pleased with his result-a result which may sound alarm bells for new Czech prime minister and Zeman ally Andrej Babis, who is struggling to form a government that will allow him to remain premier.

The previous two presidents of the country created in 1993 when Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were elected by Parliament.

While the president may influence efforts to break a government stalemate as the cabinet is likely to lose the first confidence vote next week, Czech financial assets have been largely immune to political uncertainty.

After the official results were published, Zeman said at a press conference that he was ready for participation in debates with Drahos.

He has also sought more trade with China and was the only western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing in 2015.

His more liberal rival Jiří Drahoš is staunchly pro-European and has called for Prague to "play a more active role in the EU". "It's clear that not everyone can agree, but the current president doesn't unite people, he divides them", Drahos added.

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Songwriter and businessman Michal Horacek, 65, could also vie for a spot in the run-off while support has risen for former center-right Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and diplomat Pavel Fischer.

Many voters remained undecided until the last minute, with Prague archivist Marcela Riegerova saying she "ended up tossing a coin to decide between two candidates, and Drahos came out the victor".

Independent analyst Jiri Pehe said the vote highlighted a "polarized" society.

"It is a clash between. the post-communist part of society represented by Zeman and the other part, say, modern, pro-Western, which simply doesn't want this president any more", he told AFP. He has appointed billionaire Andrej Babis, with whom he shares dislike for the EU's refugee policies, as prime minister, even though the tycoon's single-party government doesn't have a majority in parliament.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

But things could change dramatically if Drahos wins.

The CTK news agency pegged turnout at 40% after day one of voting. The polling stations will close at 22:00 on Friday night and the election will continue from 8:00 till 14:00 on Saturday.

Soon after that initial results will indicate which two candidates are likely to contest the expected run-off vote.

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