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Age counts as ex-Communist, aristocrat eye Czech presidency

26 january 2013, 10:24
0
Milos Zeman, a bold veteran of the Czech left, takes on eccentric Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Friday and Saturday in the tight round-two battle of the republic's first direct presidential election, winding down a decade under the eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus, AFP reports.

Both contenders back greater European integration, even federalism, in stark contrast to the outgoing Klaus whose second term ends March 7.

But calling the election, in which corruption, history, recession and austerity woes are also taking centre stage, is proving tricky.

Zeman, 68, scored 24.2-percent support in round one of voting January 11-12, narrowly trumping the 75-year-old Schwarzenberg, an aristocrat, who captured a surprise second spot finish with 23.4 percent.

Analysts in Prague insist age will count as voters head to the ballot box from 1300 GMT Friday for a two-day vote ending at the same time on Saturday.

Despite being the older of the rivals, and dubbed "The Prince" because of his blue-blooded family roots, Schwarzenberg is wooing young voters with a punked-out Mohawk hairdo in yellow-and-fuchsia pink pop-art "Karel is not Dead!" and "Karel for PreSIDent" campaign posters, reminiscent of Britain's Sex Pistols.

A well-connected former presidential aide to Czech Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg has trumped Zeman online, scoring over half a million "Likes" on his Facebook campaign page.

"If young people decide to go to the polls, Karel Schwarzenberg will win. The more of them go, the better his chances," Frantisek Vrabel, a consultant with the Semantic Visions analysts, said earlier this week.

"Milos Zeman is addressing voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated, while Karel Schwarzenberg is attracting urban voters who are younger and better educated," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst from Charles University in Prague, told AFP.

"I would rather bet on Milos Zeman because he has managed to set the campaign agenda with issues favouring him. But the race will most likely be very tight," Mlejnek said.

The last available survey, by the ppm factum agency, gave Zeman the lead with 53.7-percent voter support, against 46.3 percent for Schwarzenberg, but provided no margin of error.

Ahead of round one, the same agency put Schwarzenberg in fourth spot, with less than half the support he actually won.

Schwarzenberg has sparked uproar by slamming the post-war expropriation and expulsion of so-called Sudeten Germans from the borderland regions of the former Czechoslovakia, under controversial decrees issued by then-president Edvard Benes.

The move was labelled discrimination by Germany, but as a justified retaliation by Czechs and Slovaks who peacefully went their separate ways in 1993.

Zeman took the bait, accusing Schwarzenberg of "speaking like a Sudeten German", introducing what analysts termed a "nationalist dimension" into the campaign.

Zeman, a former Communist, has also slammed Schwarzenberg for being part of the centre-right government of right-wing Prime Minister Petr Necas, responsible for painful austerity cuts amid recession.

Heavily reliant on car exports to Western Europe, notably Germany, the Czech Republic sank into recession a year ago amid the eurozone crisis, after posting 1.9-percent growth in 2011.

A 0.9-percent contraction is forecast for 2012, ahead of a pick-up to 0.2-percent growth this year. Joblessness stood at 9.4 percent in December.

Zeman was put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former Communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of close ties with the mafia.

The bow-tie partial Schwarzenberg, by contrast, is perceived by voters as an intelligent elder statesman of independent wealth. He has steered clear of political fallout related to corruption allegations against the government in which he sits.

Czech presidents were elected by parliament until lawmakers approved the switch to popular universal suffrage in February 2012 to boost the legitimacy of the office.

The powers of the Czech president comprise the appointment of central bankers, army generals and judges.

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