27 Jan 2013

Political comeback by former PM

11:10 am on 27 January 2013

Former Czech prime minister Milos Zeman came out of retirement to win an election for president of the republic on Saturday.

It was the first time the position has been decided by direct popular vote.

Mr Zeman won 55% of votes in the second-round poll, compared to 45% for Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. Voters had braved freezing conditions to turn out.

He will replace Vaclav Klaus, who steps down in March after 10 years in office.

The BBC reports the result result is a triumphant return for a man many thought was finished in politics.

Mr Zeman, 68, was humiliated in his first attempt to become president 10 years ago - when even members of his own party did not vote for him. He spent much of the last decade in retirement at his country cottage.

He has the support of older voters in areas of the country that have suffered in the economic downtown. He has a folksy manner and an appetite for sausages and alcohol.

Mr Zeman won 24.2% in the first round poll, with Mr Schwarzenberg winning 23.4%.

A BBC correspondent said the urban elite voted en masse for Mr Schwarzenberg, an elderly aristocrat who was supported by many in the media and had a strong Facebook following. A titled prince, 75, he is wildly popularly amongst young, urban voters.

In the early 1990s, he worked as chancellor to President Vaclav Havel, the leader of the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communist rule in 1989.

Mr Schwarzenberg lived in exile during the communist era from 1948-1989. His family has large land holdings in Austria.

Campaign issues

The finale of the campaign was marked by appeals to nationalism.

Mr Zeman accused Mr Schwarzenberg of backing the cause of three million ethnic Germans, known as Sudeten Germans, who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II.

Mr Schwarzenberg said the election was won by lies.

"It is impossible to defend against certain type of bad-mouthing,'' he said.

Mr Zeman promised to tackle graft, an issue which has dominated political debate for years.

"I want to be president of the bottom 10 million. I do not want to be president of mafias that act as parasites on this society," he said.