Czechs elect president; anti-migrant incumbent favorite

Czechs choose between pro Russian and liberals in presidential vote

Czechs headed to the polls on Saturday for the final day of first-round voting in a presidential election that has put current pro-Russian President Milos Zeman up against liberal pro-European challengers.

Along with Zeman, former Science Academy chairman Jiri Drahos, businessman and lyricist Michal Horacek, former Civic Democrat (ODS) chairman and ex-PM Mirek Topolanek, medical doctor and university teacher Marek Hilser, former ambassador to France Pavel Fischer, Skoda Auto former board chairman Vladimir Kulhanek, Defence and Security Industry Association President Jiri Hynek and musician and producer Petr Hannig are running for president.

If no candidate achieves a majority, the top two will face each other in a runoff.

"If I end up voting, I'll vote for Drahos".

But first-time voters in Prague's academic secondary schools are hardly Mr Zeman's demographic.

But Prague wine bar owner Eva Simova, 53, told AFP that she was voting for Drahos: "He seems like an honest guy and what's more, I'm sick and exhausted of Zeman".

"They should ponder the candidates' pasts and work, not their promises".

Zeman once called the 2015 migrant crisis "an organized invasion" of Europe, and has said that Muslims were "impossible to integrate".

While he has won support among many Czechs by criticizing intellectual elites, they say he's sown doubt over whether the country of 10.6 million people should remain in the world's largest trading bloc.

Drahos could not be more different.

His more liberal rival Jiří Drahoš is staunchly pro-European and has called for Prague to "play a more active role in the EU".

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"The president should bring good manners to the political scene", Drahos said in a TV debate on Thursday.

"In Czech we say that "the fish stinks from the head" and this perfectly sums up Zeman's presidency", he told the BBC.

Independent analyst Jiri Pehe said the vote highlighted a "polarised" society.

"The president should work to unite society".

The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis's chances of forming a cabinet, although his first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.

"He lives for politics, not off of politics, he fights for our national interests", Babis told reporters, but called on Zeman to "unite, not divide" Czechs.

Babis's populist ANO movement won last October's general elections with its anti-corruption and anti-euro campaign, but the Slovak-born tycoon who is facing police charges over European Union funding fraud has failed to woo coalition partners.

The Czech lower house on Wednesday postponed the confidence vote until January 16 or later as lawmakers tussled over the fraud allegations and whether to lift his parliamentary immunity to allow prosecution.

Mr Zeman is popular in rural areas, where his forthright views on immigrants and political correctness strike a chord, our correspondent says.

But the situation could change dramatically if Drahos wins.

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