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Czechs vote to replace eurosceptic president Klaus

12 january 2013, 12:00
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Austerity-weary Czechs vote Friday and Saturday in the country's first-ever direct presidential election, with numerous woes including recession and graft scandals bedevilling the nation as it turns the page on a decade under staunch eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus, AFP reports.

Polling stations open at 1300 GMT on Friday and close at 2100 GMT, then reopen at 0700 GMT before voting winds down at 1300 GMT on Saturday.

Two ex-prime ministers, both former Communists, are tipped as favourites to top a list of nine first-round candidates -- including an artist tattooed from head to toe -- and enter a run-off slated for January 25-26.

While polls suggest straight-talking left-winger Milos Zeman is the strongest candidate for the presidency of the EU state of 10.5 million, he is unlikely to score the simple majority needed to clinch a first-round victory.

Surveys show he is likely to face mild-mannered centre-right Jan Fischer in round two.

The winner will step into the shoes of two-term president Klaus, who was elected by lawmakers, just like his predecessor Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's first president.

Havel, who died in 2011, made history as the icon of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled Communism in former Czechoslovakia, propelling him to the top job in the federation that split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Lawmakers approved the switch to popular universal suffrage in February 2012 after Klaus's re-election in 2008, widely perceived as political horse-trading.

Zeman, a 68-year-old economist who served as prime minister between 1998 and 2002, is famous for not mincing his words.

"I admit I am a left-wing politician, but I'm seeking votes from left to right. A left-wing idiot is as dangerous as a right-wing idiot," he said at a recent meeting with voters.

Meanwhile, the 62-year-old Fischer, a master statistician who served as prime minister in 2009-2010, is fighting to allay concerns among his supporters about his communist past.

Insisting he's "still sorry" about it, Fischer is asking voters to "weigh this fact against my achievements."

Trailing the two favourites, the other seven rivals include Vladimir Franz, an eccentric classical composer, artist and drama professor whose face and body are covered with Maori-style tattoos.

At 75, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is the oldest contender. The aristocrat notorious for dozing off in public formally bears the name Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena Furst zu Schwarzenberg.

Three women are also in the running, including charity-focused actress Tatana Fischerova, European Parliament member Zuzana Roithova and former MEP Jana Bobosikova.

Two candidates, both senators, were nominated by dominant Czech political parties -- Premysl Sobotka by the right-wing ruling Civic Democrats and Jiri Dienstbier by the leftist powerhouse Social Democrats.

The powers of the Czech head of state 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.

Dependent on car exports to eurozone states hit hard by the debt crisis, the Czech economy was forecast to shrink by 0.9 percent in 2012 before expanding by 0.2 percent this year. Joblessness stood at 9.4 percent in December.

Czech politicians have often been at the centre of graft scandals, and the centre-right government of Prime Minister Petr Necas has been hit by frequent disputes over corruption allegations.

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