Rivals in Czech Presidential Runoff Support Warmer Ties With Europe

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PARIS -- An outspoken former prime minister and the current foreign minister will face each other in the Czech Republic's presidential runoff in two weeks, according to the results of the first round of voting released Saturday.

The charismatic former prime minister, Milos Zeman, won 24.21 percent of the vote, giving him a narrow lead over Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, an  ardent supporter of the European Union and the United States, who got 23.4 percent.

This is the first direct popular vote for a head of state in the Czech Republic. Czechoslovakia split in 1993 to create the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The winner will succeed President Vaclav Klaus, a vociferous critic of the European Union who once compared the European bloc to a Communist state. He has dominated Czech politics for decades.

Both Mr. Zeman and Mr. Schwarzenberg are proponents of European integration so the next president is expected to offer a decisive break with the outspoken anti-European rhetoric of the Klaus era.

Direct elections were introduced, analysts said, because the previous system in which the president was elected by Parliament was deemed not transparent enough.

While the Czech presidency is largely a ceremonial post, it holds deep moral authority and the president has the power to influence foreign policy as well as make appointments to the central bank. The president also approves the appointment of judges and can grant amnesties.

Many Czech voters have grown weary of politics after a spate of corruption scandals and have been struggling with a creeping sense of disillusionment that the revolution that overthrew Communism in 1989 has not delivered on its promises.

Mr. Zeman, 68, who led a minority government from 1998 to 2002, is a witty man of the people and an economist, who analysts said would be a center-left president while the pipe-smoking Mr. Schwarzenberg's instincts were more conservative.

If Mr. Zeman is elected, analysts said, it would be seen as a return to the past since he has had a long career on the Czech political scene.

As foreign minister Mr. Schwarzenberg, 75, has been widely admired on the international stage. A member of the center-right coalition government, he is also chairman of the conservative TOP 09 party. He was a close friend of former President Vaclav Havel and served in his presidential office. Mr. Havel died in late 2011.

The departure of Mr. Klaus, 71, a fiery former economist who has served two five-year terms, will probably be met with relief in some quarters of Europe and the United States, where he has stirred controversy.

Beyond his trenchant criticism of the European Union, Mr. Klaus has described efforts to try to curb global warming a folly and called former Vice President Al Gore an "apostle of arrogance" for championing those efforts.

Tomas Sedlacek, a leading economist and a former adviser to Mr. Havel, said that Mr. Klaus's departure would help restore the country's prestige. "The ending of the Klaus era is significant because he kept us on the fringes of Europe and in America by trying to shift us to the periphery of European integration," Mr. Sedlacek said.

But others said they would miss the steadfast resolve of Mr. Klaus. "His strength is that his opinions have remained consistent for decades and he is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom," said Tomas Jirsa, a former vice chairman of a national conservative youth group.

The presidential runoff will take place on Jan. 25 and 26.

Hana de Goeij contributed reporting from Prague.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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