PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs were picking between an elderly prince and an earthy leftist on Friday in the central European country’s first direct presidential election.
The run-off vote on Friday and Saturday is closely contested between Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, an heir to one of central Europe’s wealthiest aristocratic families, and Milos Zeman, a former Social Democrat prime minister.
The winner will replace Vaclav Klaus, a notorious Eurosceptic who steps down in March after his second and final five-year term. Whoever wins will help steer Czechs closer to Europe’s mainstream after years of Klaus’s sniping at the EU.
Czech presidents do not wield much day-to-day power, but the post carries a big symbolic importance. Presidents rule from the former seat of Czech kings, a castle towering above the medieval centre of Prague. They represent the country abroad and appoint prime ministers, central bankers and judges.
Zeman supporters share his criticism of the current austerity cabinet, while Schwarzenberg for his voters represents someone above widespread graft in the political class.
“Zeman has been around for too long, we need some change. Schwarzenberg is not part of the power group, he is clean,” said Ludek Stebel, 43, an assistant at a music store.
Klaus, a right-wing economist, is backing Zeman, 68, who led a leftist cabinet in 1998-2002. Zeman then ruled under a power-sharing deal with Klaus, an arrangement that critics saw as breeding ground for corruption.
But Zeman has an appeal among poorer and rural voters who despise Schwarzenberg for his participation in the current centre-right cabinet which has raised taxes, cut social benefits and also suffered several corruption scandals.
Zeman, en economist, is credited with privatising the country’s main banks and attracting foreign investment during his premiership. His preference for sausages and heavy doses of alcohol brings him closer to some ordinary Czechs, a nation that drinks the most beer per person in the world.
Opponents criticise his friendship with former Communist officials and businessmen with links in Russia.
Schwarzenberg, who sports bow ties, smokes a pipe and greets women with a kiss on the hand, lived in exile in Austria during Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. He supported human rights movements and, after the 1989 end of Communist rule, worked as chancellor for President Vaclav Havel.
He has built a following in large cities and among young people through a campaign showing him with a purple Mohawk punk-rock hairstyle, an attempt to portray him as non-conformist and distance himself from the unpopular political class.
The final days of campaigning were filled with accusations from Zeman that Schwarzenberg supported the cause of 3 million ethnic Germans expelled after World War Two.
This could hurt Schwarzenberg with many voters who still fear that the Germans could get their confiscated property back if the expulsion is questioned, despite repeated legal and political assurances to the contrary.
Previously, Czech presidents were picked by a parliamentary vote in a process involving a great deal of backroom deals. That led to popular demand for a directly elected president, a constitutional change which was approved last year.
Polls will be open until 10 pm (2100 GMT) on Friday and from 8 am until 2 pm on Saturday. Results are due later on Saturday.
Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Jon Hemming