World

Czech leader draws criticism on eve of election

Nuns cast their ballots Friday in the second round of the Czech presidential election.
Zdenek Nemew/Associated Press
Nuns cast their ballots Friday in the second round of the Czech presidential election.

PRAGUE — With his rants against the European Union and gay rights, Vaclav Klaus has been no stranger to controversy in his 10 years as Czech president. But one of his final acts in power — a prisoner amnesty — has backfired so badly that he’s being accused of treason.

His portrait has been torn down in anger in schools and offices across the country in a rapidly evolving scandal that has cast a shadow over this weekend’s presidential election and tainted the post which, while largely ceremonial from the grandeur of Prague Castle, carries moral weight. It could also swing the outcome of the runoff vote that began Friday.

To mark the country’s 20th anniversary of independence on Jan. 1, Klaus used a traditional tool of Czech presidents and ordered the release of more than 6,000 inmates serving short prison terms. But what really infuriated many Czechs was that the decree also halted court proceedings in several high-profile fraud cases and financial scams on the grounds he wanted to stop ‘‘endless criminal proceedings.’’

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The opposition suspects his main motive may be to protect people close to his inner circle, a charge he denies.

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The controversy has touched a raw nerve in a nation that threw off communism in 1989 and has become increasingly angered by widespread corruption. Czechs, voting Friday and Saturday to elect a new president to replace Klaus, are waking up every day to new names of pardoned felons and shocking tales of people who ripped off thousands.

The frustration at Klaus has mushroomed. And his legacy — as the economics professor who oversaw the transition to free markets in the 1990s — will now most likely be rewritten.

A businessman supported by 17 nongovernmental organizations called on the Senate on Wednesday to file impeachment charges against Klaus in order to ‘‘renew the confidence of citizens in the rule of law, and a group of 30 senators has challenged Klaus’s decree at the Constitutional Court.

Both candidates in this election runoff have distanced themselves from the amnesty.