Czechs vote Friday and Saturday in their country’s first direct presidential election, with recession, austerity and graft weighing heavily on the nation as it turns the page on a decade under ardent eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus. Two ex-prime ministers, both former Communists, are tipped to finish atop a list of nine first-round candidates — including one with a fully tattooed face — and enter a second round slated for January 25-26. Although polls suggest outspoken leftist Milos Zeman is the strongest candidate to take the presidency of the European Union state of 10.5 million people, he is unlikely to score the simple majority needed to clinch a first-round victory, and will likely face mild-mannered centre-rightist Jan Fischer in the second round.
The winner will replace two-term President Klaus, one of Europe’s staunchest eurosceptics. No matter their political stripe, candidates have sought to distance themselves from his hardline anti-EU stance.
Parliament has chosen the head of state in all four previous presidential elections since this ex-communist country became independent in 1993 as the former Czechoslovakia split in two.
The switch to popular universal suffrage came in February 2012 after Klaus’s 2008 re-election by lawmakers, a vote seen as having more to do with political horse-trading than the public interest.
As one of just two EU countries in central Europe currently suffering recession — the other being Slovenia — economic matters, including biting austerity cuts, are weighing on voters’ minds.