PRAGUE: Czechs chose Europe-friendly leftist and ex-premier Milos Zeman as their new president Saturday for the first time by direct popular vote, as he trounced his conservative aristocrat rival with an anti-austerity campaign.
At 68 the burly, silver-haired Zeman scored 54.8-percent in the second-round vote against 45.19 percent for Foregin Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, final results showed.
Victory for the outspoken Zeman -- who was prime minster from 1998 to 2002 -- ends a decade under President Vaclav Klaus, 71, a strident eurosceptic and politically divisive head of state.
"Now it's time to play for the Czech national team," Zeman said in his victory speech, as overjoyed supporters chanted "Long live Zeman" at a Prague hotel.
"As a president elected in a direct vote by citizens, I will do my best to be the voice of all citizens," he added.
Results showed he swept the central European country of 10.5 million struggling with recession, losing to Schwarzenberg only in better-off urban areas and in isolated pockets in the north and south. Turnout was 60 percent, similar to the 2010 general election.
Known as "The Prince," Schwarzenberg was quick to accept defeat. "I hope he will manage to be the president of all Czech people," he said of Zeman.
Zeman is a self-described "euro-federalist" whose earlier leftist government helped negotiate the Czech Republic's 2004 accession to the European Union.
"We can safely assume Milos Zeman will take a more favourable stance towards the EU," Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP.
"He's no hardline euro-optimist, but he'll take a far more rational stance than Vaclav Klaus, he's a pro-European president," he said.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso extended his congratulatons to Zemen, saying in a statment that he takes over "at a crucial moment" for the EU as it makes decisions "that will affect its future shape and its position in the world while still being confronted with serious economic challenges."
The Czech presidential race revolved around issues related to the EU, corruption, an economy in recession and painful austerity cuts.
Zeman, an economist, focused largely on "voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated," political analyst Josef Mlejnek observed.
His supperters pointed to his traditionally leftist approach to social spending -- something for which his critics label him a populist.
"He vowed to tell the government what a miserable life people in the Czech Republic are living, and I believe Mr Milos Zeman that he will keep his promise," voter Miroslav Drobny told AFP at Zeman's Prague victory rally.
Famous for not mincing his words, Zeman has skewered Schwarzenberg for being part of Prime Minister Petr Necas's administration, responsible for a biting austerity drive amid recession.
Heavily reliant on car exports to western Europe, notably to Germany, the Czech Republic sank into recession a year ago amid the eurozone crisis, after posting 1.9-percent growth in 2011.
A 0.9-percent contraction is forecast for 2012, ahead of a pickup to 0.2 percent growth this year. Unemployment stood at 9.4 percent in December.
Zeman has been put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of mafia ties.
Analysts say his victory is likely to mean hard times for Necas's wobbly centre-right government relying for survival on a very thin margin of support from independent members of parliament.
Other are worried that Zeman's sharp tongue will ruffle feathers abroad.
"He's always been rude, that's how he behaves, and he will always be like that. He will only discredit us. When he opens his mouth during a visit abroad, as is his habit, there will be trouble," voter Karel Matejka lamented to AFP in central Prague Saturday.
A rich, well-connected former presidential aide to Czech Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg flopped at the ballot box with his youth- focused Facebook campaign that cast him as a Sex Pistols-styled punk rocker.
Czech presidents were elected by parliament until lawmakers approved the switch to universal suffrage in February 2012 to boost the legitimacy of the office amid criticism their choices were dictated by back-room political horsetrading.
The presidency is largely ceremonial, with powers limited primarily to appointing the prime minister, central bankers and top judges.