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Eastern Europe

New Czech president no stranger to controversy

The Czech Republic has elected a new president. Milos Zeman, the former Social Democrat prime minister is known for his legendary putdowns of political opponents. So what does his presidency have in store?

The incoming Czech president, Milos Zeman, is 68 years old, fond of a drink or two and a heavy smoker. He takes over from the outgoing leader, Vaclav Klaus - himself no stranger to controversy - in early March.

Zeman will become the first directly elected president of the Czech Republic, a role that up till now has been elected purely by parliamentarians. It's a largely ceremonial, though highly influential post. And for Zeman the January elections were a triumph. He beat the country's aristocratic foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, into second place, drawing on widespread discontent in poorer areas of the country with the policies of the center-right government. But in his victory speech, he promised to be president of all Czechs.

Presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg(CTK Photo/Vit Simanek)

Center-right candidate Karel Schwarzenberg was well behind in the polls

"I promise, as a president elected directly by the citizens, that I will endeavor to be the voice of all citizens," Zeman said. "I think that in a democratic society and in a democratic, free and secret ballot, a 10percent lead over your opponent is an admirable one, and once again I'd like to thank those citizens who voted for me."

'Important moment'

Zeman celebrated his victory in the large, slightly soulless Top Hotel in Prague, in the nondescript suburb of Chodov. The corridors were thick with cigarette smoke and the waiters circulated with trays of miniature bottles of plum brandy as supporters toasted Zeman's win.

Walking through the rather garish corridors of the Top Hotel was like going back in time to the late 1990s - former ministers in Zeman's government stood in little huddles, waiting patiently to congratulate their old boss, sequestered in one of the salons in a pall of smoke.

Zeman's former foreign minister Jan Kavan said the election was an extremely important moment in his country's post-communist history.

"For the first time we will now have a left-wing president, after years and years of Vaclav Klaus," Kavan told DW. "I very much hope, as a former foreign minister, that this will send positive signals, in particular to the European Union."

"I very much believe that though the future development will not be smooth, I'm convinced that it will lead to greater integration, sooner or later, and therefore a president who believes that we should be part of the hard core of integrated, democratic Europe, is for me a signal that the danger that we would finish on some kind of periphery of our own continent is now gone forever," Kavan added.

More Europe?

Nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius cast their ballots in the second round of direct presidential election at Velehrad, Czech Republic, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (CTK Photo/Zdenek Nemec)

It was the first time the people directly elected their president

Milos Zeman is certainly more pro-European than his predecessor Vaclav Klaus, who never missed an opportunity to attack the pace and direction of European integration. But Zeman's foreign policy credentials are far from perfect - he has made several controversial statements in the past, notably comparing Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, and several years ago describing Islam as an "anti-civilization, financed partly by selling oil, partly by selling drugs."

Closer to home, he has angered some in Austria and Germany over comments made during the campaign about the post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia under the so-called Benes Decrees. An editorial in Germany's Die Welt newspaper called on the German government not to invite Zeman to Berlin.

A spokesman refused to comment, saying of course Angela Merkel congratulated him on his election and was looking forward to cooperating with the new president.

But the real repercussions could be not abroad but at home. He's already fired a warning shot across the bows of the shaky center-right coalition, saying he wanted early elections as soon as possible. And many in his former party, the opposition Social Democrats, must be trembling - he was humiliated in his first presidential bid ten years ago when many of his party colleagues refused to vote for him. Now he's back - and the question on everyone's lips is will he seek revenge?

DW.DE

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