Czechs pick between east-looking Zeman and pro-western challengers in presidential vote

Almost complete results show President Milos Zeman has a large lead after the first round of voting in the Czech presidential election Saturday, though the final votes are still being tabulated.

The CTK news agency pegged turnout at 60 percent in round one, similar to the last presidential ballot in 2013.

As he voted in Prague on Friday, Zeman was targeted by a bare-breasted anti-Kremlin protester who called him "Putin's slut", referring to Russia's president.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister. They also appoint central bankers and judges and are pivotal in forming governments - a process the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member country is now going through.

According to polls taken before the voting, Zeman was expected to win the first round, but seemed unlikely to win an outright majority.

Final polls showed the most serious challenger was non-partisan academic Jiri Drahos.

Polling stations closed at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT). And now he is emerging victorious in the first round of the elections on Friday and Saturday.

President Zeman has become one of the EU's most outspoken opponents of sanctions against Moscow, with his political ally - newly appointed Prime Minister Andrej Babis - echoing his view.

On the domestic front, Drahoš has said he finds it "unacceptable" that a man facing criminal charges - a clear reference to newly elected Prime Minister Andrej Babiš - should be head of government.

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The president has pledged to grant Babis a second chance to form a cabinet if he fails to win parliamentary approval on the first try.

A former centre-left prime minister and backer of a federal Europe, Zeman has gradually shifted to positions criticising the European Union, echoing and reinforcing public sentiment.

The Czech Republic has a tiny Muslim minority and has seen few of the hundreds of thousands of people coming to Europe in the past years to seek safety from war or better life.

For his part, Drahoš said Saturday that he considered foreign policy crucial and highlighted "the solid anchoring of the Czech Republic in Europe, our partnership with NATO and the importance of ties within the Euro-Atlantic space".

Zeman has been accused of being too close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula an 'accomplished fact.' He has also been very critical in the EU's enablement of massive Islamic immigration.

The incumbent president promotes cooperation with China and Russian Federation and opposes accepting the refugees from the Muslim countries.

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.

"The polarisation of society has deepened in the past months", Saradin said.

And Zeman has also made it his priority to improve his country's relations with Beijing, as demonstrated by an official visit by the Chinese president.

  • Sonia Alvarado