A host of pro-western candidates met Tuesday’s deadline to run for Czech president, seeking to unseat incumbent Milos Zeman who has leaned toward Russia and China.
Czech presidents wield limited day-to-day power but have large informal influence and play a key role in forming governments – now under way following elections last month.
The winner of the January presidential election will fuel or tame euroscepticism that has taken hold despite the country’s economic success and stability since joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
Zeman, 73, former Social Democrat leader and prime minister, is one of the major figures in the country’s recent history, along with predecessors Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.
He remains the favorite to win a second five-year term according to bookmakers, despite limited public appearances in recent months due to diabetes and difficulty walking.
So far the most serious rival to Zeman is chemist and former chief of the Czech Academy of Sciences Jiri Drahos who is running as an independent.
Drahos, 68, is pro-EU and pro-NATO with a reserved and sober manner, a contrast to Zeman who has a reputation for swiping out at media and opponents.
“If Drahos wins, it would mean a pro-western, pro-European course,” said political analyst Josef Mlejnek jr.
“Under Zeman, our politicians have often had to remind foreign partners that it is the government and not the president who is in charge of foreign policy, and that does not make a good impression especially if there is such an east-west discord between the two lines.”
Zeman took a sharp anti-EU turn when he took Russia’s line in the Ukraine conflict and opposed EU sanctions. He also has adopted a sharply anti-immigration stance and said Islam was “anti-civilisation”.
Zeman has also given support to Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman whose ANO party won the parliamentary election last month and who Zeman promised to become prime minister.
ANO did not field its own presidential candidate, which removes one of the potential threats to Zeman.
Another pro-western contestant is Michal Horacek, 65, founder of betting firm Fortuna which he sold in 2004 and a recognized lyricist for pop music stars.
Former centre-right prime minister Mirek Topolanek, whose cabinet collapsed during the country’s EU presidency in 2009, also joined the race at the last minute.
A eurosceptic, Topolanek’s former right-hand man, Marek Dalik, started a 5-year jail sentence on Monday for corruption in army procurement while Topolanek was in office.
In a poll published on Monday, Zeman led with 34 percent, followed by Drahos at 22 and Horacek at 13 percent. Another poll on Tuesday gave Drahos a 51-49 percent edge over Zeman in a hypothetical run-off.