PRAGUE – Czechs on Saturday chose Europe-friendly leftist and former Prime Minister Milos Zeman as their new president in their first direct popular presidential vote.
The burly Zeman, 68, trounced his conservative aristocrat rival with an antiausterity campaign in a nation struggling with recession. He scored 54.8 percent vote against 45.19 percent for Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
Victory for the outspoken Zeman, who was prime minister from 1998 to 2002, ends a decade under President Vaclav Klaus, 71, a strident Euroskeptic and politically divisive head of state whose term in office will end March 7.
A chain smoker who loves a glass of wine, Zeman is a self-described “euro-federalist” whose earlier leftist government helped negotiate the Czech Republic’s 2004 accession to the European Union.
“We can safely assume Milos Zeman will take a more favorable stance toward the EU,” said Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague. “He’s no hardline Euro-optimist, but he’ll take a far more rational stance than Vaclav Klaus.”
The Czech presidential race revolved around issues related to the EU, corruption, an economy in recession and painful austerity cuts.
Zeman, an economist, focused largely on “voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated,” political analyst Josef Mlejnek observed. His supporters pointed to his traditionally leftist approach to social spending.
Famous for not mincing his words, Zeman skewered Schwarzenberg for being part of Prime Minister Petr Necas’ administration, responsible for a biting austerity drive amid recession.
During his term as prime minister, he caused uproar on several occasions, once for likening late Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler. He is also known for a strong aversion to journalists, whom he has dubbed “manure” and “superficial.”
Heavily reliant on car exports to Western Europe, notably to Germany, the Czech Republic sank into recession a year ago after posting 1.9 percent growth in 2011. A 0.9 percent contraction is forecast for 2012, ahead of a pickup to 0.2 percent growth this year. Unemployment stood at 9.4 percent in December.
Zeman has been put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of mafia ties.
Analysts say his victory is likely to mean hard times for Necas’ wobbly center-right government, relying for survival on a very thin margin of support from independent members of Parliament.
Other are worried that Zeman’s sharp tongue will ruffle feathers abroad.
A rich, well-connected former presidential aide to Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg flopped at the ballot box with his youth-focused Facebook campaign, which cast him as a Sex Pistols-style punk rocker.