PRAGUE: Czechs chose outspoken veteran leftist Milos Zeman, an ex-premier, as their new president in the Saturday runoff of the EU republic’s first direct election, defeating Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, an aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired social media campaign fell flat.
The burly, silver-haired Zeman garnered 54.82-percent support with virtually all votes counted, against 45.17 per cent for Schwarzenberg, having also won the Jan.11-12 first round in a field of nine rivals.
“Milos Zeman has won, I acknowledge this, and I hope he will manage to be the president of all Czech people,” Schwarzenberg conceded as the final results rolled in on Saturday.
His victory ends a decade under strident eurosceptic outgoing President Vaclav Klaus, 71, with Zeman, 68, having a decidedly Europe-friendly approach.
In 1998-2002, Zeman’s leftist government helped negotiate his country’s 2004 EU accession and Zeman is now a self-described “euro-federalist.” “I promise that as a president elected in a direct vote by citizens, I will do my best to be the voice of all citizens,” Zeman said in his victory speech at a Prague hotel, as overjoyed supporters chanted “Long live Zeman.”
“We can safely assume Milos Zeman will take a more favourable stance towards the EU,” Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told the reporter.
“Of course he is no hardline euro-optimist, but he will take a much more rational stance than Vaclav Klaus, he’s a pro-European president,” he added.
The campaign revolved around issues related to the EU, corruption, an economy in recession and painful austerity cuts in the Czech Republic, a central European country of 10.5 million.
Zeman’s campaign focused largely on “voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated,” political analyst Josef Mlejnek observed.
Voters giving Zeman, an economist, their support at the ballot box pointed to his traditionally leftist approach to social spending — that critics label populist — and to religion.
“I’m against school fees, and the restitution of (Catholic) Church properties (nationalised under communism). This is why I chose Zeman,” Prague university student Gabriela Peresta told the reporter, referring to policies of the centre-right government to which Schwarzenberg belongs.
In his campaign, the outspoken leftist famous for not mincing his words skewered Schwarzenberg for being part of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s administration, responsible for a biting austerity drive amid recession.
The Czech Republic, heavily reliant on car exports to western Europe, notably to Germany, sank into recession a year ago amid the eurozone crisis, 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 per cent in December.
But Zeman himself has been put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of mafia ties.
Analysts note Zeman’s victory is likely to mean hard times for Necas’s wobbly centre-right government relying for survival on a very thin margin of support from independent members of parliament.