Czechs vote Saturday on the final day of their first direct presidential election in a tight runoff between an ex-communist and a 75-year-old aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired campaign brought the election to life and down to the wire.
The two-day second round ends a decade under eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus but few dare to predict which of the two Europe-friendly rivals will succeed him.
Veteran left-winger Milos Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg, the central European republic's blue-blooded foreign minister, are locked in a race too close to call.
"It'll be very tight. I'm not nervous, far from it, I'm calm, we'll see," Schwarzenberg said after voting in Sykorice, a village near his castle southwest of Prague.
Zeman, a 68-year-old ex-premier, scored 24.2 percent in the January 11-12 first round, just ahead of closest rival Schwarzenberg, who unexpectedly took the second spot with 23.4 percent.
"I've said all I wanted to say, now it's the turn of citizens," Zeman said, after voting in Prague.
Corruption and painful austerity cuts amid recession were highlighted in the campaign alongside the republic's future role in the EU.
A group hold banners that read "Vote Karel Schwarzenberg" in the village of Sebranice, Czech Republic on January 25, 2013. Czechs vote Saturday on the final day of their first direct presidential election in a tight runoff between an ex-communist and a 75-year-old aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired campaign brought the election to life and down to the wire.
Analysts said age will count as Czechs head to the ballot box.
"If young people decide to go to the polls, Karel Schwarzenberg will win. The more of them go, the better his chances," Frantisek Vrabel, a consultant with the Semantic Visions think tank, said earlier this week.
A well-connected former presidential aide to Czech Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg has trumped Zeman online, scoring more than half a million "Likes" on his Facebook campaign page.
Dubbed "The Prince" for his noble roots, he is wooing young voters with a punked-out Mohawk hairdo in yellow-and-fuchsia pink pop-art "Karel is not Dead!" and "Karel for PreSIDent" campaign posters, reminiscent of Britain's Sex Pistols band album covers.
"I think he'll be able to present the Czech Republic in Europe and in the world, unlike Milos Zeman," said Katerina Buzkova, a young Prague native who voted for him on Friday.
Political chronology of the Czech Republic. Czechs are going to the polls to choose a new president between a former communist and a 75-year-old aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired campaign brought the election to life and down to the wire.
Perceived as an intelligent elder statesman who is above corruption due to his independent wealth, the bow-tie wearing, pipe-puffing Schwarzenberg also appeals to the older generation.
"He's honest, he doesn't have to steal because he has enough money," pensioner Libuse Rohlova told AFP upon casting her ballot Friday in Sykorice.
Others give Zeman the edge for his traditionally leftist approach to social spending and religion.
"I'm against school fees, and the restitution of church properties (nationalised under communism). This is why I chose Zeman," Prague university student Gabriela Peresta told AFP, referring to policies of the centre-right government to which Schwarzenberg belongs.
"Milos Zeman is addressing voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst from Charles University in Prague, told AFP.
He "would rather bet on Zeman" who set the campaign agenda, he added, while conceding that the race would be "very tight."
Zeman, an ex-premier, has also criticised Schwarzenberg for being part of the centre-right government of right-wing Prime Minister Petr Necas, responsible for painful austerity cuts amid recession.
Czech presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg speaks to journalusts after casting his ballot on January 25, 2013 in Sykorice village. Czechs vote Saturday on the final day of their first direct presidential election in a tight runoff between an ex-communist and a 75-year-old aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired campaign brought the election to life and down to the wire
But Zeman has come under scrutiny for alleged corruption over his links to former Communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of close ties with the mafia.
Heavily reliant on car exports to Western Europe, notably 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 pick-up to 0.2-percent growth this year. Unemployment stood at 9.4 percent in December.
With limited powers, Czech presidents were elected by parliament until lawmakers approved the switch to popular universal suffrage in February 2012 to boost the legitimacy of the office.
The Czech CTK news agency reported turnout Friday was similar to the first round, which saw 60 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots over two days.