Social Democrats hold "unusual" vote to find presidential candidate

After 12 years as president, Vaclav Havel's final term ends in January. This week the race to succeed Mr Havel has grown more intense, with Monday the deadline for the registration of candidates to become the Social Democrats' candidate for president. In a move which even Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has described as "very unusual", his party are holding a public vote to choose their candidate.

The main contenders are former justice minister Jaroslav Bures, popular ombudsman Otakar Motejl, and - most controversially - the outspoken former prime minister Milos Zeman. But why have the party chosen this "unusual" vote? Commentator Jiri Pehe says there are two reasons.

"One is that the Social Democrats wanted direct election of the president but it came too late and it is not possible to approve a constitutional amendment in time, and this is sort of a substitute for a popular election of the president. But the main reason really is an attempt to sideline Mr Zeman."

Mr Zeman had groomed Vladimir Spidla to be his successor, which he duly became. Isn't Mr Spidla's attempt to sideline his mentor somewhat Machiavellian, or at least extremely disloyal? Jiri Pehe again.

"His revolt is not really a sign of a lack of principles. It is more an attempt to be able to work as a real politician, independent of Mr Zeman. And he knows that the only way to derail Mr Zeman's presidential candidacy is really to go outside the Social Democratic party and ask the public, because Mr Zeman is far less popular among the public than he is in the Social Democratic party."

Neither is Milos Zeman popular with the Freedom Union, the smallest of the three parties in the governing coalition. In fact, the Freedom Union are so much opposed to the idea of Mr Zeman becoming president that there have been suggestions that they might pull out of the government if Mr Zeman became president. And that's something which could also have international repercussions.

Israeli TV presenter: Do you imply that there are similarities between Hitler's Third Reich and Arafat's Palestinian Authority?

Milos Zeman: Of course it is.

Milos Zeman in an interview earlier this year which severely strained relations between the Czech Republic and the Arab world. He also famously offended Sudeten Germans, calling them traitors and "Hitler's fifth column". Analyst Vaclav Zak says that the election of Mr Zeman could lead to embarrassment for the Czech Republic on the international stage.

"He's unacceptable for many foreign countries. His statements in Israel were really exceptionally bad, and there are many presidents who wouldn't like to be on the same photograph as Mr Zeman. It was told me by many ambassadors."

So, Mr Zeman's political fate could be determined by the Social Democrats' poll, which takes place on October 22, 23 and 28. The party will soon start handing out voting slips to members of the public, and the people's choice will then become the Social Democrats' candidate for president.

It is expected that the next Czech president will be the last to be elected by parliament, as the coalition parties are in favour of amending the constitution to introduce direct elections.