PRAGUE (AP) — A former left-leaning prime minister staged a big return to power Saturday by winning the Czech Republic's first directly elected presidential vote.
With all the votes counted, Milos Zeman won 54.8 percent of the vote for the largely ceremonial post, the Czech Statistics Office reported. His opponent, conservative Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, had 45.2 percent.
"Long live Zeman!" his supporters chanted at his campaign headquarters in Prague.
"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.
The 68-year-old Zeman will replace the euro-skeptic Klaus, whose second and final term ends March 7.
Zeman is considered more favorable 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 3 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.
"Nationalism took over the campaign," said Mlejnek.
A chain smoker who likes a good drink, Zeman made international headlines as prime minister with his outspoken comments. He once compared the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, drawing condemnations from the EU and the Arab League, and called Austrians who opposed a Czech nuclear plant "idiots."
After the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., Zeman and his interior minister said they believed that hijacker Mohamed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague in April 2001. That purported meeting was cited as evidence of a possible al-Qaida connection to Iraq. The 9/11 commission later said such a meeting never happened.
In 2002, Zeman outraged German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder by calling ethnic those Germans "Hitler's fifth column." In protest, Schroeder canceled his official trip to Prague.
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.