PRAGUE: Czechs vote for a president on Friday, with a field of Europe-friendly candidates, including a drama teacher tattooed head-to-toe, vying to take over after a decade under ardent eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus.
As none of the nine contenders in the country's first-ever direct presidential poll is expected to clinch a first-round victory, a runoff is expected on January 25-26.
Polling stations open at 1300 GMT on Friday and close at 2100 GMT, then reopen at 0700 GMT before voting winds down at 1300 GMT on Saturday.
An economist by profession, Klaus, whose second and last five-year term expires on March 7, has often slammed the EU which his ex-communist country joined in 2004 for red tape and for what he terms its "democratic deficit".
Breaking ranks with the pro-European policy of his predecessor Vaclav Havel, Klaus was also the last EU head of state to endorse -- albeit unwillingly -- its key Lisbon Treaty in 2009.
Two former prime ministers -- straight-talking left-winger Milos Zeman and mild-mannered centre-right Jan Fischer -- are considered the front-runners in the race to lead the ex-communist country of 10.5 million.
Both have made a point of playing up a more friendly approach toward the 27-nation bloc than Klaus.
"The Czech Republic should take steps towards more solid EU structures including a single European economic policy... including a single tax policy," the leftist Zeman said in a recent interview, endorsing what Klaus has long termed a nightmare.
As prime minister in 1998-2002, the outspoken Zeman was responsible for negotiating his country's EU accession.
The centre-right Fischer, meanwhile, has insisted that the Czech Republic should be "active in the debate on the EU's future."
"I will promote a flexible EU integration with each country choosing the speed and degree of integration it finds suitable," the former statistician who was premier in 2009-2010 has said.
The race's most colourful candidate -- both literally and figuratively -- is Vladimir Franz, a 53-year-old drama teacher, classical composer and visual artist who is tattooed head-to-toe.
Some opinion polls have placed the self-described "citizen's candidate" with zero political experience in third place.
"The world of art gives you the capacity to speak authentically about things, you're not infected with the newspeak that people are so fed up with these days," Franz told AFP ahead of the vote.
"Plus, I think a piece of pure heart would do no harm in politics," he said, naming education, tolerance and culture as his priorities
The other candidates include aristocratic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg; charity-minded actress Tatana Fischerova and European Parliament member Zuzana Roithova; Social Democrat Senator Jiri Dienstbier; and Premysl Sobotka, backed by the ruling right-wing Civic Democrats party founded by Klaus.
Only one contender -- Jana Bobosikova -- has vowed to tread in Klaus's footsteps on the issue of Europe, saying recently "if you don't like the EU and if you like the Czech Republic, vote for me."
The election is the first direct presidential vote in the central European nation, with parliament previously electing the head of state.
Lawmakers approved a switch to popular universal suffrage used in many EU countries in February 2012, after Klaus's re-election in 2008 was widely perceived as political horse-trading.
The powers of the Czech head of state are mostly focused on the nomination or dismissal of the government, generals and judges. They also include a legislative veto and the selection of central bank officials responsible for interest rates.
"The fact is that direct suffrage gives a stronger mandate to the president, or, as people sometimes say, greater legitimacy," notes political analyst Jiri Pehe.
The Czech Republic is a NATO and EU member but has yet to join the eurozone.
The country, whose politicians have often been the target of corruption allegations, has been locked in recession for a year, with its central bank predicting a moderate 0.2-percent economic growth in 2013.