Czechs start voting on Friday in the first round of a lengthy presidential contest in which eight contenders aim to defeat the veteran leader and strongly anti-immigration incumbent Milos Zeman.
The vote, which will end in a run-off in two weeks time, is seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Zeman, whose criticism of immigration from Muslim countries and push to boost ties with Russia and China has divided the country.
Czech presidents have limited executive powers but have a strong influence on public opinion, appoint central bankers and judges and are pivotal in forming governments – a process the European Union and NATO member country is now going through.
A former centre-left prime minister, Zeman has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called for the removal of EU sanctions imposed over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.
Zeman leads polls and should pick up a strong vote outside Prague and other cities on Friday and Saturday, but is expected to fall short of winning over 50 percent of the vote and may face a strong challenger in a run-off set for Jan.26-27.
First-round voting starts at 2:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday and ends Saturday at the same time.
His most serious challenger is Jiri Drahos, a chemical engineer and former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences who has campaigned on anchoring the Czech Republic’s place in Europe.
Michal Horacek, 65, a songwriter and businessman, could also wrestle for a spot in the run-off while former centre-right Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and diplomat Pavel Fischer have also seen a rise in support in the final weeks.
The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s chances of finally forming a cabinet as his first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.
Zeman and Babis are among the most popular politicians in the country of 10.6 million that is largely eurosceptic and rejects accepting migrants from the Middle East and north Africa.
Babis said on Thursday he would vote for Zeman for his experience and defence of national interests.