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Milos Zeman scores Czech presidency

Date

Jan Flemr

An early critic of Czechoslovakia's communist command economy, Zeman once called journalists 'manure.'

Czech new-elected President Milos Zeman is displayed on a screen at the Hradcany Castle.

Czech new-elected President Milos Zeman is displayed on a screen at the Hradcany Castle. Photo: AFP

Prague: A tough, outspoken chain smoker who loves a glass of wine, Europe-friendly leftist Milos Zeman replaces ardent eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus as president of the Czech Republic.

Beating conservative Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, ex-prime minister Zeman garnered 54.8 per cent of the vote against 45.19 per cent for the aristocrat in round two of the central European nation's first direct presidential election, with voter turnout of 60 per cent.

"As a president elected in a direct vote by citizens, I will do my best to be the voice of all citizens," the burly, silver-haired 68-year-old Mr Zeman said in his victory speech, as overjoyed supporters chanted "Long live Zeman" at a Prague hotel.

Results showed he swept the EU country of 10.5 million, losing to Mr Schwarzenberg only in urban areas and in isolated pockets in the north and south.

An economist, he won fame in the former Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism in 1989, for decrying the utter failure of the communist command economy.

His rise soon saw him sharing the political stage with late Velvet Revolution hero Vaclav Havel, the first post-communist Czechoslovak president, and the eurosceptic successor Klaus.

Mr Zeman joined the Communist Party during the 1968 Prague Spring reforms. The short-lived period of greater freedom was brutally crushed by a Soviet invasion.

Two years later, he was purged from the party and lost his job as an economics professor.

Mr Zeman joined the left-leaning Social Democratic party after communism fell, taking its helm in 1993.

Five years later, he formed a minority government largely responsible for talks in the run-up to Czech EU accession in 2004.

During his term as prime minister in 1998-2002, he caused uproar on several occasions, once for likening Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

He is also known for a strong aversion to journalists, whom he has dubbed "manure" and "superficial".

"My great role model, Sir Winston Churchill, had a far more harsh vocabulary than I do," Mr Zeman has said.

His failed attempt to replace Havel as president in 2003 - in a vote won by Klaus - led him to reconsider his priorities and retreat to a countryside house far from Prague "to embrace trees".

But he never managed to stay away from politics, offering advice and criticism to both the left and right.

Mr Zeman re-launched his political career in 2010, when he founded the left-wing Citizens' Rights Party.

He has been skewered for his friendship with former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, allegedly close to the Czech mafia and Russian corporations, including energy giant Lukoil.

Before the vote, Mr Zeman vowed to attend government meetings more often than his predecessors Havel and Klaus.

"The president is not a ficus or an oleander (plant) standing in the corner of the room, whose role comprises merely being watered from time to time," he quipped.

"I think he might want to take the presidency far more actively, and there is the threat that the Czech Republic might make a shift from the parliamentary system to a semi-presidential system," political analyst Josef Mlejnek noted.

Born on September 28, 1944, Zeman is married to Ivana, 47. He has two children, a son from the first marriage and a daughter who helped him with the campaign.

His campaign strategy was to seek the middle ground to woo votes on both the left and right, particularly among those bitter over recession and painful austerity cuts by the country's centre-right government.

"I'm a left-wing politician, but I'm seeking votes from left to right. A left-wing idiot is as dangerous as a right-wing idiot," he said.

Once seen with beer and the Czech herbal liqueur called Becherovka, Mr Zeman recently said he has switched to wine and plum brandy, confessing to the Blesk tabloid that his daily diet includes six glasses of the former and three shots of the latter.

"One must be consistent in these matters," he said.

AFP

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