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The Journal Gazette

  • Presidential candidate Jiri Drahos prepares to cast a vote during first round of Presidential elections in Prague, Czech Republic, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Saturday, January 13, 2018 10:35 am

Czech president will face runoff election with strong lead

KAREL JANICEK | Associated Press

PRAGUE – Czech President Milos Zeman failed to win re-election during the first round of voting on Saturday and will face a runoff election in two weeks against the former head of the country's Academy of Sciences.

Zeman and Jiri Drahos advanced to the second round of the presidential election because none of the nine candidates seeking the largely ceremonial post received a majority of first-round votes.

With ballots from 95 percent of polling stations counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Zeman had a big lead with 39.3 percent of the vote, followed by Drahos with 26.3 percent. A former diplomat Pavel Fischer was a distant third with 10.1 percent,,

"The final is still ahead of us and that's what matters," Drahos said of the Jan. 26-27 runoff. He called on all those "who want a change" to cast ballots.

Zeman, 73m was elected in 2013 during the country's first direct presidential vote, a victory that returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power. As president, he has become a strong anti-migrant voice and major pro-Russian voice in EU politics.

Drahos, 68, is seen as more western-oriented.

The previous two presidents of the republic created in 1993 after the split of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were elected by Parliament.

Under the Czech Constitution, the president has the power to pick the prime minister and to appoint members of the Central Bank board. The president also selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament's upper house.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

In office, Zeman become known for strong anti-migrant rhetoric that won him support from the populist right. He has divided the nation with his pro-Russian stance and his support for closer ties with China.

A chain smoker with a soft spot for alcohol, he was one of the few European leaders to endorse Donald Trump's bid for the White House. He also has voiced support for Trump's plan to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Unlike his euroskeptic predecessor Klaus, he flew the European Union flag at Prague Castle and used to be considered pro-Europe. But in recent years has used every opportunity to attack the EU, and has proposed a referendum on the country's membership in the bloc after Britain decided to leave.

Drahos is a political newcomer who is not affiliated with a political party and has said he wants the values of "truth, reason and decency" to win. He says he is worried about the rise of extremism and populism. A professor of chemistry, he headed the academy from 2009 until last year.