PRAGUE (REUTERS) - Czech President Milos Zeman defeated pro-EU academic Jiri Drahos in the Czech presidential election on Saturday, a tacit endorsement Zeman's tough stance against immigration and his courtship of Russia and China.
With 99.35 per cent of districts reporting, Zeman won 51.55 per cent of the vote to 48.44 per cent for Drahos, who conceded the vote before all ballots were counted.
Zeman, 73, is the last prominent figure among active politicians from the country's post-communist transitional period in the 1990s. He has pleased some but alienated others by publicly belittling opponents ranging from the last prime minister to intellectual elites and the press.
The vote reflected the divisions between liberals and conservatives seen elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. Zeman has taken a tough stance on immigration and was one of the few European politicians to back Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.
He has also rankled much of society for warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and calls to end European Union sanctions against Moscow imposed over its annexation of Crimea.
Zeman has also been lukewarm toward the EU, calling himself a federalist and saying he supports membership in the bloc while also favoring holding an in-or-out referendum, like the one that has led to Britain's impending exit.
"Zeman never questioned the Czech membership in the EU, but on the other hand he said he would welcome a referendum on exit and in practice he significantly deviated from both EU and NATO," said political analyst Michael Romancov. He described Drahos as the "unequivocally pro-EU and an euro-Atlantic candidate".
The two presidential candidates were as dissimilar personally as they are politically. Zeman is brash, with a self-advertised appetite for alcohol and tobacco. His health is a concern - he suffers from diabetes, which makes him walk with a cane. Drahos is a soft-spoken chemistry professor.
"We did not win, but we didn't lose either. I am terribly happy for this huge wave of energy," Drahos told his supporters.
"I am convinced this energy will not disappear, that it will stay."
The Czech constitution gives presidents limited executive powers, but Zeman has not hesitated to test the boundaries.
In 2013, for example, he appointed a caretaker government of his allies for five months against the will of parliament. Zeman has benefited from rising Czech hostility to immigration, especially from Muslim countries, although the country received just 116 asylum applications between January and November last year.
The country has a Muslim minority of just several thousand but warnings of security risks and loss of identity feature strongly in public debate.
Both Zeman and Drahos have rejected the EU's refugee quotas, but unlike Zeman, Drahos has said his country should differentiate between economic migrants and war refugees and follow its asylum procedures.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who has ruled as a caretaker since his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in parliament last week, backed Zeman.
Zeman also backs Babis and has pledged to give him a second chance to form a government.