BUDAPEST — Left-leaning former Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has won his country's first direct presidential elections with about 55 percent of the vote. The international community was closely watching the voting as it will impact the Czech Republic's future relations with the European Union.
Supporters celebrated upon learning that Zeman won the Czech Republic's first direct presidential poll since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It came as a blow to his rival, Karel Schwarzenberg, the current Czech foreign minister, who at age 75 hoped to become the first prince-turned-president of a European Union nation.
The election defeat of the pipe-smoking prince followed a bitter campaign in which both men clashed over the Czechs' troubled history and about the European Union.
President-elect Zeman, a former member of the Communist Party, accused his aristocratic opponent of betraying the nation by challenging 'Benes Decrees,' laws which led to the expulsion of some 3 million ethnic Germans and Austrians from Czech lands after World War Two.
Named after Edvard Benes, the first post-war president of Czechoslovakia, it was an effort to cleanse the country of people regarded as bearing responsibility for the Czechs' wartime suffering.
Yet, that long-held view was openly criticized by Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg.
In a televised debate, Schwarzenberg said what Czechs "committed in 1945 would today be considered a grave violation of human rights and the Czechoslovak government, along with President Benes, would have found themselves in The Hague," a reference to Netherlands-based international war crimes tribunals.
Many voters apparently disagreed. Schwarzenberg acknowledged Saturday that most of the people chose Mr. Zeman, with whom he also clashed about European Union membership.
President-elect Zeman is more reluctant to further enlarge the 27-nation bloc than the prince, who backs eventual entry of all Balkan countries into the EU. Mr. Zeman has said he only supports Croatia's "and possibly Serbia's" EU membership. Additionally, Mr. Zeman suggested withdrawing the Czech Republic's envoy from Kosovo which he called "a terrorist regime financed by the drugs mafia."
Yet, Mr. Zeman tried to sound more conciliatory following his election victory.
Mr. Zeman thanked everybody who supported him and congratulated his rival with his "deserved second place” in the run-off race. Milos Zeman stressed that he wanted "to be the voice of all people as president." Mr. Zeman, who is 68, replaces President Vaclav Klaus, the last Czech Republic head of state elected by parliament. Mr. Klaus was known for his anti-EU rhetoric.
His popularity recently dropped after he granted amnesty to some 7,000 prisoners to celebrate the new year and the Czech Republic's 20th anniversary as an independent nation.
While largely a ceremonial role, Mr. Zeman's presidency is expected to wield political influence at a time when the Czech Republic faces political and economic difficulties. The Czech economy shrank by nearly 1 percent last year, due in part to its dependency on car exports to eurozone states, hit hard by a debt crisis.