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Elections

Czechs tally votes in presidential election

Polling stations in the Czech Republic have closed on the final day of voting. The presidential contenders are leftist ex-premier Milos Zeman and conservative Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

The Czech election, which began Friday afternoon, is the country's first direct presidential election. Previous presidents were picked by parliament until public criticism over perceived insider deals prompted a switch in February 2012.

Czech presidents exercise little day-to-day governance but do select prime ministers, judges and central bankers.

Some eight million Czechs facing recession are entitled to decide between the two advocates of European integration, who emerged from a first round of 16 candidates on January 11-12.

The Czech CTK news agency reported turnout Friday was similar to the first round, which saw 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.

Polling surveys indicate a narrow race. One late scan by the PPM Factum agency put Zeman ahead at 54 percent, with Schwarzenberg at 46 percent. The polling agency had erred during the first round by putting Schwarzenberg fourth.

Schwarzenberg, a 75-year-old with noble roots, voted in Sykorice, a village near his castle southwest of Prague on Friday. "It'll be very tight. I'm not nervous, far from it, I'm calm, we'll see," he said after voting.

Schwarzenberg has trumped Zeman online, gaining more than half a million "Likes" on his Facebook campaign page. He is also wooing young voters with his vibrant pop-art campaign posters that feature him with a punk Mohawk hairdo, reminiscent of Britain's Sex Pistols band album covers.

Zeman, 68, who was premier from 1992 to 2002 under a power-sharing deal with Klaus, has blamed Schwarzenberg for painful austerity cuts made by the current government of Prime Minister Petr Necas.

"I've said all I wanted to say, now it's the turn of citizens," Zeman said, after voting in Prague.

Zeman scored 24.2 percent in the January 11-12 first round, just ahead of rival Schwarzenberg, who unexpectedly came in second place with 23.4 percent.

A bitter campaign

Schwarzenberg, who was born into a family with large tracts of land, returned from exile during former Czechoslovakia's transition to democracy in 1989 and worked as chancellor under the playwright-turned anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel, who died in 2011.

Czechoslovakia broke into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993. In 2003, Havel was replaced by Klaus, who was re-elected Czech Republic president in 2008.

Schwarzenberg has slammed former Czechoslovakia's post-war expulsion of three million so-called Sudeten Germans, which he termed "collective punishment" by the-then Czech president Edvard Benes.

The nation of 10.5 million, which is heavily reliant on car exports, joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004, but it is not a member of the eurozone. It has its own currency, the Czech koruna [crown].

Unemployment stands at 9.4 percent. Economic contraction last year was about one percent.

hc/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa)