Mon, Jan 14, 2013 - Page 7 News List

Ex-communist, aristocrat minister face off in Czech presidential runoff

AFP, PRAGUE

Leftist former Czech prime minister Milos Zeman and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg will face off in a Jan. 25-Jan. 26 runoff in the Czech Republic’s first-ever direct presidential election, ending a decade under eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

Zeman, 68, a bold pro-European ex-communist, scored 24.2 percent support in round one of voting on Friday and Saturday narrowly ahead of the aristocratic Schwarzenberg, 75, who made a surprise second spot finish with 23.4 percent.

The winner will replace staunchly euroskeptic Klaus, whose second and last five-year term expires on March 7. In stark contrast to him, both round-two contenders are Europe-friendly.

With the powers of the Czech president relatively limited, issues related to the republic’s role within the EU and corruption, recession and austerity woes are key.

Analysts in Prague believe that beyond traditional voter preference for either left or right, personal appeal is likely to determine the final outcome.

“It’s a clash between the left and right wing, but their personalities will play a big role,” said Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague.

“The percentages they won are very low, which increases uncertainty as the number of votes that can sway the balance is huge,” he said.

Whatever the result, the new Czech president will turn a friendlier face toward the EU, which the Czech Republic joined in 2004 — echoing the attitude of Klaus’ predecessor, the late Velvet Revolution icon and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

As prime minister from 1998 to 2002, Zeman was responsible for negotiating the EU entry of this 10.5-million-strong former communist country.

The right-wing Schwarzenberg, an aristocrat dubbed “the Prince” by his countrymen and bearing the full name of Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena Furst zu Schwarzenberg, is unabashedly pro-European. He protested loudly when Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas declined the EU’s fiscal stability pact last year.

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