Czech poll end of an era

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iol news pic Vaclav Klaus REUTERS Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Polling stations across the Czech Republic opened on Friday in the country's first-ever direct presidential election winding down two decades in power for ardent eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus.

Former prime ministers Milos Zeman and Jan Fischer were tipped by pollsters as the odds-on favourites, but Czech media wrote Friday aristocratic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg might capitalise on a last-ditch offensive.

Polls opened at 1300 GMT and they are due to close at 2100 GMT, then reopen at 0700 GMT before voting ends at 1300 GMT on Saturday.

As none of the nine contenders is likely to clinch a first-round victory in voting which lasts until Saturday afternoon, a run-off is expected for January 25-26.

The other contenders include fully-tattoed drama teacher and visual artist Vladimir Franz and three women -- eurosceptic former European Parliament member Jana Bobosikova, current EMP Zuzana Roithova and charity-minded Tatana Fischerova.

The remaining two candidates, both senators, were nominated by dominant Czech political parties -- Premysl Sobotka by the right-wing ruling Civic Democrats and Jiri Dienstbier by the leftist powerhouse Social Democrats.

The new president of the recession-hit country of 10.5 million people is likely to take a more pro-European stance than Klaus, whose second and last five-year term expires on March 7.

Zeman, Fischer and Schwarzenberg have vowed to pursue a friendly policy towards the 27-nation bloc which the Czech Republic joined in 2004.

The powers of the Czech head of state are mostly focused on the nomination or dismissal of the government, generals and judges. They also include a legislative veto and the selection of central bank officials responsible for interest rates.

The country, whose politicians have often been the target of corruption allegations, has been locked in recession for a year, with its central bank predicting moderate economic growth of 0.2 percent in 2013. - AFP

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