Former PM wins Czech presidency

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FORMER left-leaning prime minister Milos Zeman staged a return to power yesterday by winning the Czech Republic’s first direct vote for the post of president.

With almost all the votes counted last night, the Czech Statistics Office reported that Zeman had won 54.8 per cent of the poll for the largely ceremonial role. His opponent, conservative foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, had 45.9 per cent.

“I promise that as a president elected in a direct popular vote I will try to be the voice of all citizens,” Zeman said from his campaign headquarters in Prague.

Since Czechoslovakia officially split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993, the Czech Republic has had two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, elected by parliament.

But disputes during their elections saw the legislature hand over the decision to the general public.

Zeman, 68, will replace Euro­sceptic Klaus, whose second and final term ends on 7 March. Zeman is considered more favourable towards the European Union, of the state is a member.

A chain smoker who likes a drink, Zeman’s outspokenness while prime minister, made international headlines. He compared the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Hitler, drawing condemnation from the EU and Arab League. He also called Austrians who opposed a Czech nuclear plant “idiots.”

After the 9/11 attacks in the US, Zeman and his interior minister said they believed hijacker Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April 2001. That purported meeting was cited as evidence of a possible al-Qaeda connection to Iraq. The 9/11 commission later said such a meeting never happened.

In this campaign, a major issue was the 1945 expulsion of three million ethnic Germans from then-Czechoslovakia in a move approved by the Allies. Schwarzenberg said in a debate that Czechs should not be proud of this action, prompting attacks from both Zeman and Klaus.

“Nationalism took over the campaign,” said Josef Mlejnek, an analyst from Prague’s Charles University.

In 2002, Zeman outraged German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder by calling those ethnic Germans “Hitler’s fifth column”. In protest, Schroeder cancelled an official trip to Prague.

The president now has the power to choose a prime minister and appoint central bank board members. He also appoints, with parliament’s approval, constitutional court judges but otherwise has little power.