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Czechs elect Milos Zeman president in nation's first direct vote


With all the votes counted, Milos Zeman won 54.8 per cent of the vote for the largely ceremonial post, the Czech Statistics Office reported. His opponent, conservative Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, had 45.2 per cent.

"I promise that as a president elected in a direct popular vote I will try to be the voice of all citizens," Zeman said.

Voters seemed to punish Schwarzenberg for the government's unpopular austerity cuts that aimed to reduce the budget deficit.

"It definitely didn't help me," Schwarzenberg said, adding he will continue to serve as foreign minister.

Since Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993, the Czech Republic has had two presidents elected by Parliament: Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus. But bickering during those votes led lawmakers to give that decision to the public.

Zeman is considered more favourable toward the 27-nation European Union, to which the country belongs. People in his inner circle also have close business ties with Russia so "he might become an advocate of closer relations with Russia," said Josef Mlejnek, an analyst from Prague's Charles University.

Zeman is not opposed to pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities and opposes Kosovo's independence.

In the campaign, one of the top issues became the 1945 expulsion of three million ethnic Germans from then-Czechoslovakia in a move approved by the Allies. Schwarzenberg said Czechs should not be proud of this action, prompting attacks from both Zeman and Klaus.

During his four years in office beginning in 1998, Zeman's government privatized the ailing bank sector but was criticized for a lack of transparency in privatizing state-owned property and for often failing to run public tenders for state contracts.

Under the Czech constitution, the president has the power to pick the prime minister after a general election and to appoint members of the Central Bank board. With the approval of Parliament's upper house, the president also appoints constitutional Court judges.

Otherwise the president has little executive power and the country is run by the government chosen and led by the prime minister.