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Czechs to vote in first direct presidential election

09 january 2013, 15:33
0
Czechs vote Friday and Saturday in their country's first direct presidential election, with recession, austerity and graft weighing heavily on the nation as it turns the page on a decade under ardent eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus, AFP reports.

Two ex-prime ministers, both former Communists, are tipped to finish atop a list of nine first-round candidates -- including one with a fully tattooed face -- and enter a second round slated for January 25-26.

Although polls suggest outspoken leftist Milos Zeman is the strongest candidate to take the presidency of the European Union state of 10.5 million people, he is unlikely to score the simple majority needed to clinch a first-round victory, and will likely face mild-mannered centre-rightist Jan Fischer in the second round.

The winner will replace two-term President Klaus, one of Europe's staunchest eurosceptics. No matter their political stripe, candidates have sought to distance themselves from his hardline anti-EU stance.

Parliament has chosen the head of state in all four previous presidential elections since this ex-communist country became independent in 1993 as the former Czechoslovakia split in two.

The switch to popular universal suffrage came in February 2012 after Klaus's 2008 re-election by lawmakers, a vote seen as having more to do with political horse-trading than the public interest.

As one of just two EU countries in central Europe currently suffering recession -- the other being Slovenia -- economic matters, including biting austerity cuts, are weighing on voters' minds.

Heavily dependent on car exports to eurozone states hit hard by the debt crisis, the economy was forecast to shrink by 0.9 percent in 2012 before expanding by 0.2 percent this year.

Surveys released this week gave Zeman, 68, who served as prime minister between 1998 and 2002, between 23- and 25-percent popular support.

This compared to 16 to 20 percent for his nearest rival, 62-year-old Fischer, also a prime minister between 2009 and 2010.

"I want to be the president of all people," including Communists and those on the right, Zeman said recently on the campaign trail.

Fischer, a former chief statistician, headed a technocratic caretaker government that managed an economic recovery in 2010 which saw the economy expand by 2.3 percent after a biting 4.4-percent contraction amid the global crisis in 2009.

Insisting he is "still sorry" over his Communist past, Fischer's campaign has echoed Zeman's bid to woo voters from both left and right with promises of transparency aimed at targeting graft.

In the event he is elected, he would become the Czech Republic's first Jewish president.

The fact that both top contenders are former members of the reviled Communist Party which ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 is worrying some voters.

"I don't want the president of my beloved homeland to be a former member of a criminal party," Vera Caslavska, an Olympic gymnastics gold medallist in 1964 and 1968, persecuted by the regime in the 1970s and 1980s, said recently.

Amid the recession and corruption scandals battering the wobbly centre-right government of Prime Minister Petr Necas, younger voters in particular are looking to the eccentric Vladimir Franz, whose face and body are completely covered with Maori-style tattoos and piercings.

The 53-year-old drama professor scored over 52,000 "likes" in a Facebook campaign that included a viral meme casting Klaus as a "blue president", referencing the traditional colour of Czech conservatives, contrasted with Franz's blue-tattooed face.

Blue-blooded aristocrat and current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, former Senate chairman Premysl Sobotka and Social Democrat Senator Jiri Dienstbier have also thrown their hats in the presidential ring.

The candidate list also includes three women, charity-focused actress Tana Fischerova, European Parliament member Zuzana Roithova and former MEP Jana Bobosikova.

The powers of the Czech head of state are limited compared with those wielded by many presidents and are mostly focused on the nomination or dismissal of the government, generals and judges.

They also include a legislative veto and the selection of central bank officials responsible for interest rates.

Widely respected anti-communist "Velvet Revolution" hero Vaclav Havel became the first democratically elected president of the independent Czech Republic in 1993, four years after Czechoslovakia shed communism.

The playwright led the Czech Republic until 2003, seeing it join NATO in 1999 and paving the way for EU accession in 2004.

His death in December 2011 sparked an outpouring of grief across the country.

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