Czechs: to pick between Zeman, pro-western challengers in presidential vote

Czechs: to pick between Zeman, pro-western challengers in presidential vote

The outspoken incumbent President Mr Zeman, who has pro-Russian and anti-immigrant views, leads opinion polls in the first round of voting against a crowded field of challengers.

However, with nearly all ballots counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Zeman had 38.6 percent of the vote, a commanding lead over Drahos' 26.6 percent.

If no candidate achieves a majority during the vote, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff in two weeks' time.

In 2015, for example, he warned the people of South Moravia to prepare for an invasion of Muslim migrants.

Security personnel also had to help a visibly rattled 73-year-old Zeman, who walks with a cane, to leave the room.

Drahos could not be more different.

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Zeman's inclination towards far-right groups and his warm relations with Russian Federation and China have split public opinion, with a sizeable chunk of the electorate favouring pro-western candidates, including 68-year-old academic Drahos. A mild-mannered liberal centrist whom critics have dubbed "wishy-washy", he has called for Prague to "play a more active role in the EU" and has backed the adoption of the euro currency. "It's clear that not everyone can agree, but the current president doesn't unite people, he divides them", Drahos added.

"I like that he speaks to voters", said Irena Matuskova, a Prague nurse who plans to vote for Zeman.

The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis's chances of forming a cabinet, although his first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.

Analyst Pehe said the vote highlighted a "polarised" society.

Nonetheless, he remains popular and the latest poll predicts he could get over 42 percent of the vote in the first round.

Babis's populist ANO movement won last October's general elections with its anti-corruption and anti-euro campaign, but the Slovak-born tycoon who is facing police charges over European Union funding fraud has failed to woo coalition partners.

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Milos Zeman once said he wanted "death for all abstainers and vegetarians", he has declared war-literally-to journalists and on environmental groups he said he would treat them "in the medieval way: he would burn them, urinate on them and I would throw salt at them".

"The final is still ahead of us, and that's what matters", Drahos said.

Zeman was elected to the largely ceremonial post in 2013 during the country's first direct presidential vote, a victory that returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power.

But if one of the rivals wins, this will represent a huge change in the politics of this country that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

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.

Polling stations reopened at 0700 GMT and will close at 1300.

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The two highest-scoring candidates will go head-to-head in a run-off planned for January 26-27.

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