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Pro-Russian incumbent favored to win Czech presidential election

Reuters

Czech President Milos Zeman arrives to cast a vote during the country’s direct presidential election as a Femen activist is escorted by Zeman’s bodyguards at a polling station in Prague on Friday.

Reuters PRAGUE (Reuters) — Czechs wrap up voting on Saturday in the first round of a presidential election in which eight candidates are seeking to oust the incumbent Milos Zeman, whose inclination toward far-right groups and warm relations with Russia and China have split public opinion.

The vote, likely to end in a run-off in two weeks’ time, is seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has harshly criticised migration from Muslim countries and is keen to boost ties with Moscow and Beijing.

Czech presidents have limited executive powers but previous incumbents have had a strong influence on public opinion. They are also pivotal in forming governments — which the European Union and NATO member country is now trying to do.

Opinion polls show Zeman is the favourite but may face a strong challenge in the second round, expected in two weeks, where the two strongest candidates go head to head. Pro-western academic Jiri Drahos, 68, was the leading challenger in the final opinion polls.

A win by any of Zeman’s main rivals could mean that voices from the Czech leadership may shift closer to the EU mainstream, in contrast to ex-communist neighbours such as Poland and Hungary, whose governments have clashed with Brussels.

A former center-left prime minister, Zeman has adopted a strongly anti-immigration stance, echoing the majority feeling in the country, and has won endorsements from the Communist Party as well as the main far-right SPD group.

He has sought more trade and tighter political relations with China — he was also the only western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing in 2015.

Zeman has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called for the removal of EU sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea to boost business, promoting which is one of his stated aims.Speech

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