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Leftist and 'punk prince' square off in Czech runoff
by Staff Writers
Prague (AFP) Jan 25, 2013

Czechs went to the polls Friday to choose a new president between a former communist and a 75-year-old aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired campaign brought the election to life and down to the wire.

The two-day second round will end a decade under eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus but few dared to predict who would succeed him, with veteran left-winger Milos Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg, the central European republic's blue-blooded foreign minister, locked in a tight race.

"It'll be very tight. I'm not nervous, far from it, I'm calm, we'll see," Schwarzenberg said upon casting his ballot in Sykorice, a small village near the castle where he lives southwest of Prague.

Zeman, 68, scored 24.2 percent in the January 11-12 first round, narrowly trumping rival Schwarzenberg, 75, who clinched a surprise second spot finish with 23.4 percent.

"I've said all I wanted to say, now it's the turn of citizens," Zeman said, also playing it cool after voting in Prague.

As both contenders back greater European integration, the republic's first direct presidential election is certain to turn the page on Klaus' strident brand of euroscepticism.

Analysts are pointing to voting age as a factor to watch.

"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 think tank, said earlier this week.

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.

Despite being the older of the rivals, dubbed "The Prince" for his noble roots, he 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 band album covers.

Perceived as an intelligent elder statesman who is above corruption due to his independent wealth, the bow-tie wearing, pipe-smoking Schwarzenberg also appeals to the older generation.

"He's honest, he doesn't have to steal because he has enough money," pensioner Libuse Rohlova, told AFP upon casting her ballot Friday in Sykorice.

Others give an edge to Zeman for his traditionally leftist approach to social spending, and religious issues.

"I'm against school fees, and the restitution of church properties (nationalised under communism). This is why I chose Zeman," Prague university student Gabriela Peresta told AFP Friday as she voted, referring to policies of the centre-right government to which Schwarzenberg belongs.

"Milos Zeman is addressing voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst from Charles University in Prague, told AFP adding he "would rather bet on Zeman" who set the campaign agenda, but admitting the race would "most likely be very tight."

The post-war expropriation and expulsion of so-called Sudeten Germans from the borderland regions of the former Czechoslovakia -- labelled discrimination by Germany and a justified retaliation by Czechs and Slovaks -- became the hot potato of the campaign.

When Schwarzenberg slammed the expulsion, Zeman accused him of "speaking like a Sudeten German," introducing what analysts termed a "nationalist dimension" into the campaign.

Zeman, a former Communist, has also skewered 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 came under scrutiny for alleged corruption over his links to former Communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of close ties with the mafia.

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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