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Czech Voters Cast Ballots in Expected Close Election - 2002-06-14

Voting is under way in the Czech republic's two-day parliamentary election that will decide who will lead the country toward membership in the European Union and who will choose a new Czech president next year. Observers are expecting a close election.

Czech voters are casting ballots in the knowledge that no party apparently will win a majority in parliament.

Opinion polls have suggested that the ruling Czech Social Democratic Party will receive around 30 percent of the votes and the opposition Civic Democrats around 28 percent. The polls say two other parties: the Communists and the so-called Coalition of Christian Democrats and the rightist Freedom Union, should get about 15 percent each.

Observers have said they expect the voting will produce a weak minority government or tough talks about forming a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats, at a time when the nation of about 10 million people prepares to join the European Union as early as 2004.

Rightist leader Vaclav Klaus, who rose to prominence during the Velvet Revolution against Communism in 1989, and Social Democratic Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla are considered front-runners for the post of prime minister.

They differ widely on reforming pensions and spending, which are seen as the key domestic challenges for the next cabinet.

Both men have said they want to take the Czech republic into the European Union. But, Mr. Klaus seems less enthusiastic about the enlargement process. He recently suggested EU membership would erode the Czech republic's sovereignty.

Even if his party loses, analysts have said Mr. Klaus may be elected by parliament as the country's president next year in return for some political concessions. The new president - a largely symbolic job - will succeed former writer and dissident Vaclav Havel.

Some Czech officials have described the parliamentary elections, which conclude Saturday, as the most important polls since the collapse of communism.

But the Czech media have called them the most boring ballot in more than a decade. And, one opinion poll showed that most Czechs are unhappy with the political situation.

At one point, a Communist candidate enlisted topless models to try to get attention during a campaign meeting. Other parties signed up sport stars and Czech pop artists to perform at outdoor rallies.

Results of the Czech parliamentary elections are expected as early as Saturday evening.