Czechs elect president by ballot for 1st time
For the first time, citizens of the Czech Republic are electing a president, and their nine choices to replace euro-skeptic Vaclav Klaus run the full gamut: from veteran politicians to an artist whose entire body is tattooed.
If no candidate for the largely ceremonial post achieves a majority during the voting on Friday and Saturday - a likely scenario - the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff in two weeks' time.
"What I like about this is that common people have a say now," said Jiri Trojanek, a voter in Prague. "That it's not just in the hands of politicians."
Former leftist Prime Minister Milos Zeman and Jan Fischer, who led a caretaker government as prime minister in 2009-10, are the favorites, according to polls.
Unlike Klaus, both Zeman and Fischer have a more positive approach to the European Union, which the Czech Republic joined in 2004.
Klaus, a conservative, has repeatedly criticized the EU as too centralized, and warned that excessive regulation by Brussels may suppress competition.
Zeman is attempting to stage a return to power after he retired following a failure in the 2003 presidential election.
A chain smoker with a soft spot for alcohol, Zeman made international headlines as prime minister with outspoken comments. For example, he compared late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, drawing condemnations from the EU and the Arab League.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Zeman and his interior minister said they believed that 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-Qaida connection to Iraq. The 9/11 commission later said such a meeting never happened.
By contrast, Fischer, a former head of the Statistics Office, gained significant popularity as prime minister avoiding controversies.
Since Czechoslovakia officially split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993, the republic has had two presidents elected by Parliament: Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus. But bickering during those votes led the legislature to give that decision to the general public.
Klaus' second and final five-year term in office expires March 7.
Under the Czech constitution, the president has the power to pick the prime minister based on a general election and to appoint members of the Central Bank board. With the approval of Parliament's upper house, the president also appoints Constitutional Court judges.
Otherwise the president has little executive power and the country is run by the government chosen and led by the prime minister.
Other candidates competing in the presidential election include the current foreign minister, former and current lawmakers, and an actress.
Vladimir Franz, a renowned classical music composer and painter with no experience in politics looks like a dark horse of the presidential race, with a poll putting him at the third place. The fact that the professor at the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts in Prague has his body tattooed all over is no obstacle for his many admirers.
He's a favorite among young people who see him as an opposition to a political establishment they consider corrupt.
"I don't know if I'll make the second round, but the most important thing is that the nation is waking up," Franz said after casting his ballot in Prague on Friday.
Associated Press video journalist Adam Pemble in Prague contributed.