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Czech presidential vote sets up Zeman-Drahos second round clash


Incumbent east-looking Milos Zeman led the first round of the Czech Republic's presidential election on Saturday by a wide margin but short of winning outright, partial results showed, Reuters reported.

 

Eight candidates are seeking to oust Zeman, whose inclination toward far-right groups and warm relations with Russia and China have split public opinion.

 

With 30.6 percent of voting districts counted, Zeman led the race with 42.9 percent of votes, while Jiri Drahos, 68, a pro-western academic, won 24.7 percent.

 

Unless the winner takes more than 50 percent in the first round, the two highest-scoring candidates will go head to head in a run-off planned for Jan. 26-27.

 

The vote is seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has criticised migration from Muslim countries and Germany's decision to accept many migrants.

 

Czech presidents have limited executive powers but Zeman and his predecessors have had a strong influence on public debate. They are also pivotal in forming governments -- which the European Union and NATO member country is now trying to do.

 

Zeman's lead does not mean an easy win in the second round in which the two strongest candidates go head to head. Many voters may switch from their losing candidates to support the runner-up against Zeman.

 

Final first-round results were expected by Saturday evening.

 

The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis's chances of forming a cabinet. His first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.

 

Zeman has backed Babis and said he would give him another chance even though the billionaire businessman has struggled to get support from other parties while he battles police allegations that he illegally obtained EU subsidies a decade ago. Babis denies wrongdoing.

 

A win by any of Zeman's main rivals could mean that voices from the Czech leadership may shift closer to the EU mainstream. Public opinion, the most eurosceptic in the EU, may also be affected by a change of tone from the top.

 

"I voted for professor Drahos because I want that someone who will not push us to the East and who will not be a disgrace," said lawyer Matej Gredl, 30, after he voted in Prague.

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