Colorful Czechs vie to replace Klaus as president

Fri Jan 11, 2013 11:41am EST
 
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By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - A tattoo-covered artist, an aristocrat, a statistician and tippling chain smoker faced off with other candidates in the Czech Republic's first ever direct election on Friday to replace Euro-sceptic President Vaclav Klaus.

Whoever wins the contest will be a more pro-European figure than Klaus, a 71-year old economist who has dominated politics in the former Soviet satellite country for the past two decades and steps down after 10 years in office.

The post does not wield much day-to-day power but presidents represent the Czech Republic abroad, appoint central bankers and judges. The winner will also play a moral role as a successor to the first post-communist president, the anti-communist dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel.

Many Czechs, angry over a protracted recession and a raft of sleaze scandals in the political class, want a new leader who can steer the country back into the European mainstream from Klaus's course of confrontation with other EU states.

"I am looking forward to any change," said shop assistant Lenka Vargova, 35. "I disliked Klaus from the beginning ... It should be someone more spiritually grounded like Havel."

The front runner is Milos Zeman, 68, a towering, burly economic forecaster who built up the center-left Social Democrat party after the 1989 end of communism and served as its first prime minister in 1998-2002.

The folksy chain smoker is popular for his funny anecdotes and a sharp wit that sometimes borders on insult, as well as a down-to-earth lifestyle and a penchant for knocking back shots of liquor at any time of day.

Zeman's campaign has been burdened by his allegiance to confidants including former Communist officials and businessmen with strong links to Russia, old master of the Eastern Bloc.   Continued...

 
Czech presidential candidate Milos Zeman leaves the polling station as he is surrounded by the media during the country's first ever direct presidential election to replace outgoing president Vaclav Klaus, in Prague January 11, 2013. REUTERS/David W Cerny