Czech president leads voting, but will face runoff election

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Zeman's main contender in the upcoming elections, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jiri Drahos, is equally outspoken.

Some local polls see Zeman narrowly beat Drahos in a runoff, while Czech Television released a poll on Monday that has Drahos edging the president with 48.5 percent of the vote to Zeman's 44 percent.

"In the previous presidential election (2013), I got 24 percent in the first round and 54 percent in round two, and this year already 40 percent in round one", added the ex-communist who is also pro-China.

The two highest-scoring candidates will go head-to-head in a run-off planned for January 26-27.

As a member of an increasingly right-wing regional alliance of Central European nations, named the Visegrad Group, that includes Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the Czech Republic stands at an ideological crossroads with the rise of the country's xenophobic far right, which rose to parliament in October's legislative elections.

While he has won support among many Czechs by criticizing intellectual elites, they say he's sown doubt over whether the country of 10.6 million people should remain in the world's largest trading bloc.

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Drahos, 68, could not be more different.

The first round of voting passed uneventfully apart from a semi-naked protester who tried to disrupt Mr Zeman casting his vote in Prague on Friday. A mild-mannered liberal centrist whom critics have dubbed "wishy-washy", he has called for Prague to "play a more active role in the EU" and has backed the adoption of the euro. Songwriter Michal Horacek finished fourth with 9.2 percent, ahead of physician Marek Hilser, who had 8.8 percent. The encounter left Zeman visibly shaken and looking weak.

Zeman's lead does not mean an easy win in the second round.

Many voters remained undecided until the last minute, with Prague archivist Marcela Riegerova saying she "ended up tossing a coin to decide between two candidates, and Drahos came out the victor".

"The polarisation of society has deepened in the past months", Saradin said.

Ironically, experts say the move might boost Zeman's chances, judging by an outpouring of sympathy for him on social media.

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Babis's populist ANO movement won last October's general elections with its anti-corruption and anti-euro campaign, but the Slovak-born tycoon who is facing police charges over European Union funding fraud has failed to woo coalition partners.

Mr Zeman's victory is profoundly important to the recently installed prime minister, Andrej Babis, who heads up a minority government heavily dependent on the current president's support for its survival.

But if one of the rivals wins, this will represent a huge change in the politics of this country that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

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.

"Drahos has made it very clear that a prosecuted man should not be prime minister", Pehe said.

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