PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs wrapped up voting on Saturday in the first round of a presidential election in which eight candidates are seeking to oust Milos Zeman, whose inclination toward far-right groups and warm relations with Russia and China have split public opinion.
The vote, likely to end in a run-off in two weeks’ time, is seen as a referendum on the 73-year-old Zeman, in office since 2013, who has criticised migration from Muslim countries and Germany’s decision to accept many migrants in Europe.
Czech presidents have limited executive powers but Zeman and his predecessors have had a strong influence on public debate. They are also pivotal in forming governments -- which the European Union and NATO member country is now trying to do.
Opinion polls show Zeman is the favourite but may face a strong challenge in the second round in which the two strongest candidates go head to head. Pro-western academic Jiri Drahos, 68, was the leading challenger in final opinion polls.
Polling stations closed at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT). Results were expected to trickle in throughout the afternoon, with final count expected by Saturday evening.
The outcome may influence Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s chances of forming a cabinet. His first attempt to rule in a minority administration is likely to be rejected by parliament next week.
Zeman has backed Babis and said he would give him another chance even though the billionaire businessman has struggled to get support from other parties while he battles police allegations that he illegally obtained EU subsidies a decade ago. Babis denies wrongdoing.
A win by any of Zeman’s main rivals could mean that voices from the Czech leadership may shift closer to the EU mainstream. Public opinion, the most eurosceptic in the EU, may also be affected by a change of tone from the top.
“I voted for professor Drahos because I want that someone who will not push us to the East and who will not be a disgrace,” said lawyer Matej Gredl, 30, after he voted in Prague.
A former centre-left prime minister and backer of a federal Europe, Zeman has gradually shifted to positions criticising the EU, echoing and reinforcing public sentiment.
He has won endorsements from some mainstream groups as well as the Communist Party and the main far-right anti-EU and anti-NATO SPD party.
The Czech Republic has a tiny Muslim minority and has seen few of the hundreds of thousands of people coming to Europe in the past years to seek safety from war or better life. Like Slovakia and Hungary, the Czechs have clashed with the European Commission over their refusal to accept migrants under quotas set by a vote by EU leaders.
Zeman has sought more trade and closer ties with China and has warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for the removal of EU sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea to boost business.
“If Zeman stays, it will bode well for the companies that he promotes, which have business interests in China and Russia,” said Pavel Saradin, a political scientist at Palacky University.
He has strong support mainly in the countryside of the nation of 10.6 million people, and often snipes at Prague elites and the media.
“The polarisation of society has deepened in the past months,” Saradin said. “Data also show a deepening rift between cities and the countryside.”
Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Additional reporting by Jiri Skacel; Editing by Ros Russell