PRAGUE – Presidential elections were underway in the Czech Republic on Friday in a vote that was expected to be won by the incumbent head of state, an often incendiary figure known for his myriad controversial statements.
Some eight million Czechs are eligible to vote in what is only the second direct presidential election since democracy was reinstated in the central European nation in 1989, as such votes have normally been a prerogative of lawmakers and senators.
The sitting president, Milos Zeman, a former prime minister and ex-leader of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), was considered the front-runner heading into the ballot.
Zeman, 73, has been at the helm of the Czech presidency since winning an election run-off in 2013 and his tenure has been marked by a gradual slide from mild pro-Europeanism to euro-skepticism, taking issue with the European Union’s migrant quotas and branding the refugee crisis and “organized invasion.”
Furthermore, Zeman has taken issue with EU sanctions on Russia over Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis and welcomed the United States President Donald Trump’s contentious decision to relocate Washington’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Unlike in neighboring countries such as Austria, where the presidency plays a more symbolic role, the Czech president does hold some political responsibility and signs off legislation alongside the prime minister, who is head of government.
Recent polling suggested Zeman would take some 32 percent of the national vote, while independent candidate Jiri Drahos looks to finish second with 21 percent.