PRAGUE, Jan 12, 2018 (BSS/AFP) - Czechs head to the ballot box Friday and Saturday in a bellwether presidential election in the EU country pitting anti-Muslim, pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman against his more liberal pro- European rivals.
Polls show the divisive 73-year-old ex-communist leading the pack of nine candidates ahead of Jiri Drahos, the pro-European former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences.
Although he is in pole position, the outspoken head of state -- who uses a cane to walk -- is unlikely to win an outright majority and is set to face a run-off vote on January 26-27.
A recent poll commissioned by Czech Television showed Drahos winning a second round with 48.5 percent of the vote against 44 percent for Zeman.
"Of course I'm nervous," Zeman told top-selling Czech daily Dnes on Thursday, adding that he expected a "difficult" run-off.
Zeman's rhetoric echoes other populist-minded eastern EU leaders -- especially in Hungary and Poland -- at odds with Brussels over mandatory refugee quotas and various rules they see as attempts to limit national sovereignty.
He also has harsh anti-Muslim views, having once called the 2015 migrant crisis "an organised invasion" of Europe and insisted Muslims were "impossible to integrate".
Paradoxically, the country of 10.6 million people has received only 12 migrants under the EU quota system.
Drahos could not be more different. A mild-mannered liberal centrist whom critics have dubbed "wishy-washy", the physically-fit 68-year-old has called for Prague to "play a more active role in the EU".
"The president should bring good manners to the political scene," Drahos said in a TV debate on Thursday.
"The vote shows a broader conflict, it shows how society is polarised," independent political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP.
"It is a clash between... the post-communist part of society represented by Zeman and the other part, say, modern, pro-Western, which simply doesn't want this president any more."
- Liberal democracy? -
Zeman has won the backing of embattled billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who said on Thursday he saw the incumbent as "one of the most remarkable personalities" since the fall of communism in 1989.
"He lives for politics, not from politics, he fights for our national interests," Babis told reporters, but called on Zeman to "unite, not divide" Czechs.
Babis, whose populist ANO movement scored a landslide win in general elections last October with its anti-corruption and anti-euro campaign, will need to be on good terms with the next president.
Potential coalition partners have shunned the Slovak-born tycoon who is facing police charges over EU funding fraud, making it impossible for him to form a majority government after Zeman tapped him for prime minister.
Babis appears set to lose a parliamentary confidence vote scheduled for January 16.
Pehe said a victory for Zeman might "pave the way for a deeper alliance with Andrej Babis, which could lead to a change in some basic parameters of liberal democracy in the country."
But the situation could change dramatically if Drahos wins.
"Drahos has made it very clear that a prosecuted man should not be prime minister," Pehe said.
Zeman's other rivals include ex-gambler and songwriter Michal Horacek, former right-wing premier Mirek Topolanek, and Vratislav Kulhanek, former head of Czech carmaker Skoda Auto.
Polling stations open at 1300 GMT on Friday and close at 2100 before reopening at 0700 GMT and closing at 1300 on Saturday.