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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Czech voters head for the polls
A Prague voter enjoys a free beer
Voters say free beer has been a campaign highlight
Voters in the Czech Republic are casting their ballots in a general election likely to decide who leads the country into the European Union.


In Spidla's eyes, in his face, I see fanaticism of an almost unknown scale in our country

Vaclav Klaus
Former right-wing Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, whose Civic Democrats are running neck-and-neck with the left-wing Social Democrats, is hoping to make a comeback after being forced to resign five years ago.

The Czech media has dubbed the election the most boring since the fall of communism, although the contenders clash on a number of key issues, and have launched bitter attacks on one another.


You failed as prime minister - your government left the country in crisis

Vladimir Spidla
Mr Klaus, a free-marketeer once dubbed the Margaret Thatcher of Central Europe, has pitted himself against Social Democrat leader Vladimir Spidla's vision of a comprehensive welfare state, calling on voters to "bar the way for Socialists".

Both men say they want to take the country into the EU - probably in 2004 - although Mr Klaus is seen as lukewarm on the issue.

Horse-trading

Polling stations opened at 2:00pm (1200 GMT) on Friday and will close at the same time on Saturday. Exit polls are due almost immediately.

Latest polls
Social Democrats (28% / 29.9%)
Civic Democrats (24% / 27.8%)
Coalition (16% / 18%)
Communists (12% / 14.3%)

Turnout by late Friday was between 20% and 25%. Analysts said the final turnout was likely to be down on the 74% seen in the last elections in 1998.

Because the results are predicted to be so close, Czechs are expecting either a weak minority government or a protracted period of post-electoral coalition horse-trading.

No party has a chance of winning a majority.

Mr Spidla's leads opinion polls at present with some 28%, against 24% for the Civic Democrats, while a coalition of the centrist Christian Democrats and centre-right Freedom Union are forecast to pick up around 16% of the vote.

Mr Spidla says he does not want to form a coalition with Mr Klaus. The centrist coalition also has problems with the sometimes abrasive former leader.

Christian Democrat leader Cyril Svoboda has said that Mr Klaus' half-hearted attitudes towards EU entry may make his coalition lean towards the Social Democrats in any horse-trading.

This boosts the likelihood of a centre-left coalition.

That is thought to be the preferred option of President Vaclav Havel, an arch-enemy of Mr Klaus.

There are some fears among opponents of Mr Klaus that Mr Spidla may have to woo Mr Klaus in order to form a viable coalition - and that the incentive he may offer is parliamentary support for a bid by the right-wing leader to become the next Czech president in January.

See also:

13 Jun 02 | Europe
12 Jun 02 | Europe
04 Jun 02 | Europe
28 Feb 02 | Europe
20 Feb 02 | Europe
25 Dec 01 | Europe
27 Feb 02 | Country profiles
27 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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