PRAGUE (AP) — Czech President Milos Zeman failed to win re-election during the first round of a presidential election Saturday and will face a runoff in two weeks against the former head of the country’s Academy of Sciences.
Zeman and Jiri Drahos advanced to a second round of voting because none of the nine candidates seeking the Czech Republic’s largely ceremonial presidency received a majority of votes in the first round held Friday and Saturday.
However, with almost all ballots counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Zeman had 38.6 percent of the vote, a commanding lead over Drahos’ 26.6 percent.
A former diplomat, Pavel Fischer, was a distant third with 10.2 percent. Songwriter Michal Horacek finished fourth with 9.2 percent, ahead of physician Marek Hilser, who had 8.8 percent. The three pledged their support to Drahos in the runoff.
Zeman congratulated Drahos and said he was ready to debate him before the Jan. 26-27 runoff. Zeman didn’t take part in any debates ahead of the first round of voting.
“Mr. Drahos said that he would like to meet me face to face. I am happy to oblige him,” the president said.
Election officials said voter turnout was 61.9 percent in the preliminary election. Drahos called on all those “who want a change” to cast ballots in the runoff.
“The final is still ahead of us, and that’s what matters,” Drahos said.
Zeman, 73, was elected in 2013 during the country’s first direct presidential vote, a victory that returned the former left-leaning prime minister to power. As president, he has become a strong anti-migrant voice and major pro-Russian voice in European Union politics.
A chain smoker with a soft spot for alcohol, he was one of the few European leaders to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for the White House.
Drahos, 68, is seen as more western-oriented and firmly supports the country’s EU and NATO membership.
The previous two presidents of the country created in 1993 when Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were elected by Parliament.
Under the Czech Constitution, the president picks the prime minister after a general election, one of the office’s key responsibilities.