Czechs pick between east-looking Zeman and pro-western challengers in presidential vote

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs wrap up voting on Saturday in the first round of a presidential election in which eight candidates are seeking to oust the incumbent Milos Zeman, whose inclination toward far-right groups and warm relations with Russia and China have split public opinion.
The vote, likely to end in a run-off in two weeks' time, is seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has harshly criticized migration from Muslim countries and is keen to boost ties with Moscow and Beijing.
Czech presidents have limited executive powers but previous incumbents have had a strong influence on public opinion. They are also pivotal in forming governments -- which the European Union and NATO member country is now trying to do.
Opinion polls show Zeman is the favorite but may face a strong challenge in the second round, expected in two weeks, where the two strongest candidates go head to head. Pro-western academic Jiri Drahos, 68, was the leading challenger in the final opinion polls.
A win by any of Zeman's main rivals could mean that voices from the Czech leadership may shift closer to the EU mainstream, in contrast to ex-communist neighbors such as Poland and Hungary, whose governments have clashed with Brussels.
A former centre-left prime minister, Zeman has adopted a strongly anti-immigration stance, echoing the majority feeling in the country, and has won endorsements from the Communist Party as well as the main far-right SPD group.
He has sought more trade and tighter political relations with China - he was also the only western leader to attend a military parade in Beijing in 2015.
Zeman has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called for the removal of EU sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to boost business, promoting which is one of his stated aims.
"If Zeman stays, it will bode well for the companies that he promotes, which have business interests in China and Russia," said Pavel Saradin, a political scientist at Palacky University.
Zeman has strong support mainly in the countryside of the nation of 10.6 million people, and he often snipes at Prague "elites" and the media.
"Polarisation of society has deepened in the past months," Saradin said. "Data also show a deepening rift between cities and the countryside."
Zeman's stance against migration has been a vote winner in the country, which has clashed with the European Commission over its refusal to accept migrants under quotas set by a vote by EU leaders.
First-round voting ends at 2:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Saturday, and results are expected later in the afternoon.
The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis's chances of forming a cabinet, although his first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.
Zeman has backed Babis even though the billionaire businessman has struggled to get support from other political parties while he battles police allegations that he illegally obtained EU subsidies a decade ago. Babis denies wrongdoing.
Babis said on Thursday that he would vote for Zeman.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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