PRAGUE Former leftist Prime Minister Milos Zeman won the first round of the Czech Republic's first direct presidential election but will face strong competition in a run-off in two weeks, partial results showed on Saturday.
The next president will replace the strongly Euro-skeptic incumbent Vaclav Klaus, whose final term ends in March.
Whoever wins is likely to take the country of 10.5 million people closer to the European mainstream after years in which Klaus's attitude to the bloc made the country unusual among post-communist EU member states.
The post does not wield much day-to-day power but presidents represent the Czech Republic abroad and 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 political sleaze scandals, have been looking for a change.
Zeman, a burly 68-year-old chain-smoking economist, won 24.7 percent of the vote, results from 87 percent of voting districts showed.
He will face off against conservative Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, 75, who won a surprisingly strong 22 percent, knocking statistician Jan Fischer, a favourite in opinion polls before the vote, out of the race.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)