Left eyes victory as Czechs vote in snap election

Chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party and candidate for Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, leaves a polling station in Austerlitz, after casting his ballot on October 25, 2013.

Vexed by years of graft and austerity Czechs vote Saturday on the second and last day of a snap election that the left-wing opposition is poised to win, but a stable majority government seems unlikely.

The ballot caps months of political turmoil set off by a spy and bribery scandal that brought down the centre-right government of Petr Necas.

Voters already veered left in January, electing ex-Communist Milos Zeman as president after a decade under the right-wing and eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus.

The Social Democrats (CSSD) topped pre-vote polls but whether they will team up with the Communists or a breakout populist party is unclear.

"No clear majority coalition is in the cards," Jan Outly, a political analyst at Prague's Metropolitan University, told AFP.

Coalition governments lacking comfortable majorities are the norm on the fragmented Czech political scene. Smaller parties or independent MPs are often wooed for support.

The latest opinion survey gave 26 percent support to the Social Democrats, 18 percent to the Communists and 16.5 percent to billionaire Andrej Babis's populist party ANO.

The Slovak-born farming tycoon and media baron has capitalised on the blow dealt to the right by the June bribery scandal.

Tipped as the next premier, Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka says his party could go it alone in a minority government, relying on the Communists' tacit support.

Sobotka urged voters Friday to give him "one-third of votes" for a "strong and stable government".

Putin in Prague

But many Czechs are incensed by the prospect of the far-left becoming a powerbroker for the first time since the Velvet Revolution brought down totalitarianism two decades ago.

Anti-communists hoisted a massive banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin atop a hill in central Prague on Friday.

Czech sculptor David Cerny gave Zeman the finger -- a huge purple one floating along the river before the presidential castle -- over his soft spot for the Communists.

And Czech rockers played gigs called "Nikagda nezabudem" in Russian or "We'll never forget".

"I'd hate to see them in government," Dana Nemcova, a former dissident close to the late Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, said as she cast her ballot in Prague.

But others, hurting from years of austerity and a record 18-month recession that ended this year, welcome a swing to the left.

"I'm voting for the Social Democrats because we can't go on like this, the country is so terribly plundered that we need change," Prague nurse Radka Linhartova, 48, told AFP.

"Even if the devil himself took over, it would be better than what we've had up to now."

Like Zeman and the Social Democrats, the Communists back generous welfare programmes and eurozone entry once its debt woes are over, but they also want the Czech Republic to leave NATO.

Tango with a tycoon?

Sobotka has so far ruled out teaming up with Babis, who is also for joining the eurozone but "not just yet".

Analysts say ANO -- meaning "yes" and an acronym for Action for Alienated Citizens -- is a force to be reckoned with but point out risks.

"It's hard to figure out (ANO's policy stance) and so it's a risky coalition partner. I think the Social Democrats will look at all other possible coalitions," Outly said.

Babis reinvented US President Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign slogan, promising Czechs "Yes, We'll Be Better Off" with a politician who knows how to make money.

Claiming his billions make him immune to bribery, the second wealthiest Czech is wooing voters with vows of squeaky clean politics.

A legacy of four decades of totalitarian rule, corruption has plagued the EU member of 10.5 million people since its 1993 split with Slovakia.

Transparency International ranks the Czech Republic as more corrupt than Rwanda and 94 percent of Czechs believe graft is "widespread in government", according to a Gallup Institute survey released last week.

Polling closes at 1200 GMT on Saturday.