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Czechs elect president in break with eurosceptic past

Members of the electoral commission  visit people living in remote areas who can vote at home, January 11, 2013
Members of the electoral commission walk through the snow with a ballot box as they visit people living in remote areas who can vote at home, January 11, 2013 in Strani. Czechs head to the ballot box for a second day of voting Saturday, with a field of Eu

Czechs head to the ballot box for a second day of voting Saturday, with a field of Europe-friendly candidates including an artist tattooed head-to-toe, vying to take over after a decade under eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus.

While former prime ministers Milos Zeman and Jan Fischer, both ex-communists, are tipped as favourites, media pundits said Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg might capitalise on a last-minute charm offensive.

First-round voting in the Czech Republic's first-ever direct presidential election continues on Saturday until 1300 GMT.

None of the nine contenders is likely to clinch a first-round victory, so a runoff between the two top finishers is expected on January 25-26.

With the powers of the Czech president being relatively limited, issues related to the republic's role within the European Union and corruption woes are key in the election.

Graphic showing GDP growth, unemployment, public debt and inflation since 2006 in the Czech Republic
Graphic showing GDP growth, unemployment, public debt and inflation since 2006 in the Czech Republic.

Both the straight-talking veteran left-winger Zeman and the mild-mannered centre-right statistician Fischer have a far more friendly approach toward the 27-nation bloc than Klaus. Their line echoes the attitude of Klaus's predecessor, the late Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel.

"The Czech Republic should take steps towards more solid EU structures including a single European economic policy," Zeman said in a recent interview, endorsing what Klaus has long described as a nightmare.

As prime minister in 1998-2002, Zeman was responsible for negotiating the 2004 EU entry of his 10.5 million-strong ex-communist country.

Despite Zeman's leftist and pro-European stance, right-winger Klaus -- who wastes no opportunity to slam the EU -- has nevertheless suggested he would vote for him.

"My point is to have a president who has done something for this country and whose experience we can all see," Klaus said after casting his ballot in Prague Friday. His second and final five-year term ends on March 7.

The centre-right Fischer who served as premier in 2009-2010, has meanwhile insisted that the Czech Republic should be "active in the debate on the EU's future."

All the candidates cast their ballots on Friday.

"I guess you wouldn't expect me to vote for someone else," Fischer conceded to reporters after voting.

"He's a serious man who's in the know, he's no fool," pensioner Udo Cerny told AFP after voting for him in Cernosice, a small town near Prague.

Pipe-smoking 75-year-old Karel Schwarzenberg, an aristocrat bearing the full name of Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena Furst zu Schwarzenberg, has also been wooing voters. Many of them perceive him as honest and experienced.

"I feel he would be the least likely to steal," Prague senior citizen Alena Zurkova told AFP, referring to the chronic levels of corruption in Czech politics.

"He is the least corrupt and the most experienced when it comes to diplomacy and international contacts," said Alena Poulova, a young IT expert voting in Cernosice.

The most colourful candidate -- in all senses -- is Vladimir Franz, a 53-year-old drama teacher, classical composer and visual artist tattooed from his head to his feet.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus walks behind a curtain at a polling station in Prague on January 11, 2013
Czech President Vaclav Klaus walks behind a curtain at a polling station in Prague on January 11, 2013.

"I think a bit of pure heart would do no harm in politics," Franz, told AFP ahead of the vote. A self-described citizens' candidate with no political experience, he named education, tolerance and culture as his priorities.

Three women and two senators are also in the running.

The election is the first direct presidential vote in the central European nation.

In February 2012, lawmakers approved a switch to popular universal suffrage used in many EU countries to boost the legitimacy of the office. Klaus's re-election in 2008 by parliament was widely perceived as political horse-trading.

The Czech Republic, a NATO and EU member yet to join the eurozone, has been mired in recession for a year, with its central bank predicting moderate 0.2-percent economic growth in 2013. Joblessness stood at 9.4 percent in December.

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