(This version of the January 26th story corrects number of asylum applications in paragraph 10 to make clear they refer to just the month of November)
By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Pro-EU academic Jiri Drahos is seeking to unseat anti-immigration political veteran Milos Zeman, who has sought closer relations with Russia and China, in a tight run-off in the Czech presidential election which started on Friday.
Many see the vote as a referendum on Zeman, 73, a former centre-left prime minister who has shifted sharply to the right, with a brash style that has divided the EU nation.
As well as leading calls against accepting migrants from mainly Muslim countries, he has focused on building ties with Beijing and Moscow, including calling for the removal of EU sanctions on Russia imposed over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
The election mirrors divisions between more socially liberal and conservative camps that have featured in votes around Europe and also the United States. Zeman declared support for U.S. President Donald Trump before Trump’s election in 2016 - a rare position among leaders in Europe.
“Society is now really divided 50-50 and it depends which voters are going to come and vote,” analyst Jiri Pehe said. “For Jiri Drahos, it would be important that young people from big cities come to vote.”
In a final poll released on Monday, the 68-year-old chemistry professor led with 47 percent to 43 percent for Zeman, while 10 percent were undecided. Bookmakers have however tilted their odds in favour of Zeman’s victory.
The president, elected for five years, is not involved in day-to-day politics but appoints central bankers and judges, and picks which politician can form a government.
Zeman has the backing of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who rules in caretaker capacity after his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in parliament last week.
Zeman, whose term does not end until March 7, has pledged to give Babis a second chance to form a government regardless of the election result.
Zeman has benefited from, and reinforced, Czech hostility to immigration from Muslim countries. The eurosceptic country received just 116 asylum applications in November last year.
Drahos, a former head of the Academy of Sciences, has also rejected a quota on refugees. He has however put more emphasis on building relations with European partners.
“I will probably vote Zeman,” Prague sales clerk Daniela Simkova said. “If I had to pick based on likeability, I would vote Drahos; he looks good and carries himself well. But Zeman does not want migrants, and for me, that is important.”
In a final television debate on Thursday, the two men sparred over policy on Russia. Drahos said he saw Russia as a security threat because it views NATO, to which the Czechs belong, as its adversary. Zeman said it was not a security threat and he attacked Drahos for inexperience.
Polling stations opened at 1300 GMT on Friday and close at 1300 on Saturday. Results are expected within several hours.
Reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka; Additional reporting by Petra Vodstrcilova; Editing by Richard Balmforth