Czech Republic to hold presidential vote in January


Prague (AFP) - The Czech Republic will go to the polls in January in only the second presidential election in the country's modern history decided by popular vote, the Senate speaker said Wednesday.

About 20 candidates including the incumbent President Milos Zeman have already thrown their hats into the ring ahead of the vote which speaker Milan Stech said would take place on January 12-13.

If no candidate wins an absolute majority, the vote will go to a second round on January 26-27, Stech said on public television.

Zeman, who is known for his staunch anti-Muslim, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese views, announced earlier this year that he would run for a second five-year term.

The 72-year-old former communist and Donald Trump supporter is supported mostly in rural parts of the country and is disliked by the pro-EU intellectual circles of Prague and other large cities.

Critics have expressed concern that his health is not ideal for a president. Zeman is a heavy smoker, a fan of hard liquor and suffers from impaired hearing and diabetic neuropathy, which forces him to walk with a cane.

- General election in October -

Among the 20 other candidates are former Academy of Sciences head Jiri Drahos and businessman Michal Horacek -- who along with Zeman are currently topping opinion polls.

Drahos, a 68-year-old chemist by training, is seen as the only candidate who could beat Zeman, with a survey by the Median institute in June showing he would win 53.5 percent of a possible second round vote.

Those wishing to run for president must obtain the backing of at least 20 lawmakers or 10 senators, or gather 50,000 signatures by November 7.

The Czech president's powers are not as extensive as those of his counterparts in France and the United States, but he can nominate or remove the prime minister and other members of government, as well as approve or veto laws adopted by parliament.

Zeman is the third Czech president since the country gained independence in 1993, following the late dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and the economist Vaclav Klaus.

Before the presidential election, Czechs will hold a general election on October 20-21.

Led by billionaire Andrej Babis, the centrist ANO party has emerged as a clear odds-on favourite for the general vote in recent opinion polls.