Published: Sun, January 14, 2018
Global | By Shelia Dennis

Czech presidential election starts

Czech presidential election starts

Milos Zeman, the incumbent Czech president known for his anti-immigration stance, is leading in the first round of the Czech presidential election, which finished on Saturday.

Zeman leads polls and should pick up a strong vote outside Prague and other cities on Friday and Saturday, but is expected to fall short of winning over 50 percent of the vote and may face a strong challenger in a run-off set for January 26-27.

Zeman's main contender in the upcoming elections, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jiri Drahos, is equally outspoken.

The topless anti-Kremlin protester from Ukraine's Femen group was overpowered by bodyguards and then arrested by police.

While he has won support among many Czechs by criticizing intellectual elites, they say he's sown doubt over whether the country of 10.6 million people should remain in the world's largest trading bloc.

But Prague wine bar owner Eva Simova, 53, told AFP that she was voting for Drahos: "He seems like an honest guy and what's more, I'm sick and exhausted of Zeman".

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He has also lashed out against the EU's efforts to integrate refugees from the Middle East and Africa, once saying that Muslim migrants will impose Sharia Law, chop off thieves' hands and stone adulterous women in Europe.

Drahos could not be more different.

But the controversial populist could face a tougher threat from a single opponent in a run-off in two weeks if he does not win outright in the first round. 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.

"The president should work to unite society". "I voted for professor Drahos because I want that someone who will not push us to the East and who will not be a disgrace", said lawyer Matej Gredl, 30, after he voted in Prague.

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

Mr Zeman has promised to give Babis a second chance to form a government if the first attempt fails.

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"I invite all those who want to vote for me to come to the polling stations in round two too, and bring your friends, your lovers and their mistresses", the flamboyant 73-year-old Zeman told supporters gathered at his campaign headquarters in Prague.

Babis denies wrongdoing. A former centre-left prime minister and backer of a federal Europe, Zeman has gradually shifted to positions criticising the European Union, echoing and reinforcing public sentiment.

But the situation could change dramatically if Drahos wins.

A recent poll for Czech Television showed the divisive Zeman could flounder in round two with Drahos poised to score 48.5 percent of votes predicted against 44 percent for the incumbent.

Other candidates in the running include ex-gambler and songwriter Michal Horacek, former right-wing premier Mirek Topolanek and Vratislav Kulhanek, former head of Czech carmaker Skoda Auto.

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

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