PRAGUE (Reuters) - A tattoo-covered artist, an aristocrat, a statistician and tippling chain smoker faced off with other candidates in the Czech Republic’s first ever direct election on Friday to replace Euro-sceptic President Vaclav Klaus.
Whoever wins the contest will be a more pro-European figure than Klaus, a 71-year old economist who has dominated politics in the former Soviet satellite country for the past two decades and steps down after 10 years in office.
The post does not wield much day-to-day power but presidents represent the Czech Republic abroad, appoint central bankers and judges. The winner will also play a moral role as a successor to the first post-communist president, the anti-communist dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel.
Many Czechs, angry over a protracted recession and a raft of sleaze scandals in the political class, want a new leader who can steer the country back into the European mainstream from Klaus’s course of confrontation with other EU states.
“I am looking forward to any change,” said shop assistant Lenka Vargova, 35. “I disliked Klaus from the beginning ... It should be someone more spiritually grounded like Havel.”
The front runner is Milos Zeman, 68, a towering, burly economic forecaster who built up the center-left Social Democrat party after the 1989 end of communism and served as its first prime minister in 1998-2002.
The folksy chain smoker is popular for his funny anecdotes and a sharp wit that sometimes borders on insult, as well as a down-to-earth lifestyle and a penchant for knocking back shots of liquor at any time of day.
Zeman’s campaign has been burdened by his allegiance to confidants including former Communist officials and businessmen with strong links to Russia, old master of the Eastern Bloc.
He has stressed his pro-European leanings. The Czechs joined the European Union in 2004 but Klaus’s anti-EU stance has pushed the country towards the margins of the 27-member bloc.
“I would start with a gesture: I would invite (European Commission President Jose Manuel) Barroso and raise the EU flag at the Prague Castle,” he said this week.
Close behind in support is Jan Fischer, 62, a statistician and caretaker prime minister from 2009 to 2010.
Fischer won over many Czechs through his lack of affiliation with any major political party, a plus in an environment of widespread public distrust towards political parties that are frequently tarnished by scandal.
But his black spot is membership in the totalitarian Communist party in the 1980s. He has said he joined to help advance his career, an admission many Czechs see as a character weakness.
No one was expected to win an outright majority in the first round of voting on Friday and Saturday. The two top candidates will advance into a run-off round two weeks later.
Karel Schwarzenberg, a 75-year-old prince from a centuries-old aristocratic family that once owned swathes of central Europe, has seen a late surge in popularity that may secure him a run-off spot.
Currently foreign minister in the center-right cabinet, the bow-tied, pipe-smoking Schwarzenberg is personally untainted by graft scandals. He was a supporter of anti-communist dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and has offered some of his many properties for charity organizations to use.
Some voters have been turned off, however, by his involvement in the scandal-plagued cabinet and its austerity campaign, as well as his alliance with highly unpopular Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek. Others are put off by his age and a tendency to mumble and fall asleep during meetings.
Polls have also given double-digit rating to Vladimir Franz, a classical music composer with tattoos covering nearly 100 percent of his body. These have won him the nickname “Avatar” and made him a favorite among young voters. (Additional reporting by Jana Mlcochova)