Czechs chose Europe-friendly leftist and former premier Milos Zeman as their new president on Saturday for the first time by direct popular vote, as he trounced his conservative aristocrat rival with an anti-austerity campaign.
At 68 the burly, silver-haired Zeman scored 54.8 percent in the second-round vote against 45.19 percent for Czech Foregin Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, final results showed.
Victory for the outspoken Zeman — who was prime minster from 1998 to 2002 — ends a decade under Czech President Vaclav Klaus, 71, a strident euroskeptic and politically divisive head of state.
“Now it’s time to play for the Czech national team,” Zeman said in his victory speech, as overjoyed supporters chanted “Long live Zeman” at a Prague hotel.
“As a president elected in a direct vote by citizens, I will do my best to be the voice of all citizens,” he said.
Results showed he swept the central European country of 10.5 million struggling with recession, losing to Schwarzenberg only in better-off urban areas and in isolated pockets in the north and south. Turnout was 60 percent, similar to the 2010 general election.
Zeman is a self-described “euro-federalist” whose earlier leftist government helped negotiate the Czech Republic’s 2004 accession to the EU.
“We can safely assume Milos Zeman will take a more favorable stance towards the EU,” said Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague.
“He’s no hardline euro-optimist, but he’ll take a far more rational stance than Vaclav Klaus, he’s a pro-European president,” Lebeda said.
The Czech presidential race revolved around issues related to the EU, corruption, an economy in recession and painful austerity cuts.
Zeman, an economist, focused largely on “voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated,” political analyst Josef Mlejnek said.
His supporters pointed to his traditionally leftist approach to social spending — something for which his critics label him a populist.
“He vowed to tell the government what a miserable life people in the Czech Republic are living, and I believe Mr Milos Zeman that he will keep his promise,” voter Miroslav Drobny said at Zeman’s Prague victory rally.
Heavily reliant on car exports to western Europe, notably to 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 last year, ahead of a pickup to 0.2 percent growth this year. Unemployment stood at 9.4 percent last month.
Zeman has been put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of mafia ties.
Other are worried that Zeman’s sharp tongue will ruffle feathers abroad.
“He’s always been rude, that’s how he behaves, and he will always be like that. He will only discredit us. When he opens his mouth during a visit abroad, as is his habit, there will be trouble,” voter Karel Matejka said in central Prague on Saturday.