Incumbent Zeman favoured to win as Czechs vote

PRAGUE: Czechs started voting on Friday in the first round of a presidential election in which eight candidates are seeking to defeat incumbent Milos Zeman, whose brash style and leanings toward eastern powers have sharply divided opinion.
The vote, likely to end in a run-off in two weeks, is seen as a referendum on 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has harshly criticised immigration and is keen to boost ties with Russia and China.
Czech presidents have limited executive powers but previous incumbents have had a strong influence on public opinion.
They also appoint central bankers and judges and are pivotal in forming governments — a process the European Union and Nato member country is now going through.
A loss for Zeman to any of his main challengers could mean Czech public opinion may shift closer to the EU mainstream, in contrast to ex-communist neighbours such as Poland and Hungary whose governments have clashed with Brussels.
A former centre-left prime minister, Zeman has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called for the removal of EU sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
He has also sought more trade with China and was the only western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing in 2015.
But he has been criticised for ignoring Chinese human rights issues that Czech foreign policy had previously focused on.
Zeman leads polls and should pick up a strong vote outside Prague and other cities on Friday and Saturday, but is expected to fall short of winning over 50 per cent of the vote and may face a strong challenger in a run-off set for January 26-27.
First-round voting started at 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Friday and ends on Saturday at the same time.
Zeman is a supporter of US President Donald Trump and similarly boosts his appeal with sniping at the press and what he calls intellectual elites.
He regularly holds voter meetings with crowds of people in smaller towns. — Reuters