West clash as Czechs vote for new president

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Presidential elections kick off in the Czech Republic today, in a test for the polarising incumbent, Milos Zeman.

Another presidential candidate, former prime minister Mirek Topolanek, said Babis's support for Zeman is related to the fact that Zeman announced on Wednesday that he would want Babis to present signatures of a majority of MPs supporting his next government before he would appoint him prime minister again.

Before the second round of the previous presidential election in 2013, Babis told daily Hospodarske noviny (HN) he would vote for Zeman's rival Karel Schwarzenberg because Zeman continued with the capitalist mafia and corruption style of former president Vaclav Klaus.

While presidents in the Czech Republic have little authority and limited political influence beyond the ability to make constitutional appointments, they can have a significant sway on public opinion. Zeman, leading polls, is expected to fall short of winning over 50 percent of the vote and may face a strong challenger in a run-off on January 26-27. They also appoint central bankers and judges and are pivotal in forming governments, a process the Czech Republic - a member of both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - is now going through. Since then, he's been one of most prominent voices in Europe to call for abolition of sanctions against Russian Federation over the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Zemen was greeted at the polling station by a topless protester from worldwide feminist group Femen, shouting "Putin's slut".

First-round voting started at 2:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday and ends Saturday at the same time.

Security personnel also had to help a visibly rattled Zeman, who walks with a cane, to leave the room.

Zeman is a supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump and similarly boosts his appeal with sniping at the press and what he calls intellectual elites.

Prague voter Martin Sauta said he voted for Zeman as he has "the most consistent views", while his rivals are "completely shapeless". A 68-year-old chemistry professor and former chief of the academy of science, Drahos is pledging to improve ties with the European Union and return "dignity" to the presidential post - a campaign jab against Zeman who has polarized the political landscape. The two candidates with the strongest support will advance to the second round.

One of Milos Zeman's first acts as president was highly symbolic.

Mayors and Independents (STAN) chairman Petr Gazdik said Babis preferred Zeman looking eastwards. His reelection would reflect a eurosceptic stance by most Czechs and the public's rejection of accepting migrants and refugees.

Among the leading candidates, Zeman has been the most outspoken on migration, linking Muslim immigration to security threats.

"What I would be afraid of is infiltration by jihadists, and thus a higher number of terrorist attacks in European countries or cities", he said on TV Barrandov.

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