Tattooed artist runs for Czech president
He's tattooed from head to toe, a warrior-like mix of blue, green and red.
He's also running in a surprising third place ahead of this week's Czech presidential elections.
Vladimir Franz, an opera composer and painter, seems the most unlikely of candidates for a prestigious post previously held by beloved playwright-dissident Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, a professor credited with plotting the economic transition from communism to a free market.
Some have a nickname for Franz: `Avatar.' And during a televised debate a caller compared him to "an exotic creature from Papua New Guinea."
But he's not short of admirers in a country where voters are increasingly tired of politicians they say are corrupt and failing to deliver on years of promises, more than two decades after the fall of communism.
Franz has no political experience and confesses to little knowledge of economics. He says he only threw his hat in the ring after a group of admirers established the Franz for President initiative and begged him to shake up the race through his shock factor. But he's stirred up such goodwill that a leading economist offered his services for free and his campaign workers are also volunteers.
He's only spent $25,000 from donations on his campaign and hasn't put up any posters.
Franz burst onto the political scene with an eye-catching 88,000 signatures at the end of 2012 - far more than the 50,000 required by law.
Not affiliated with any party, he has campaigned mostly on a platform highlighting graft, the importance of education and the nation's moral standing.
"The (political) system is so enchanted with itself that it's lost the ability to self-reflect," he said in an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday. Czechs, he says, "are fed up with this crap."
He's proven particularly popular with young voters - and those not yet eligible to cast a ballot. In a mock presidential election at 441 high schools across the country a month before the vote, Franz won by a landslide, garnering more than 40 percent of some 60,000 votes.
He's tipped to win around 11 percent in the first round on Friday and Saturday - not enough to make the runoffs. But he may end up kingmaker as the leading candidates - former prime ministers Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman - would be eager to pick up his following if the vote goes to a second round.
Karel Strachota, who organized the school ballot, said young people no longer identify with existing parties.
Franz is seen as "a candidate who is not tainted by politics," Strachota said. "They look with sympathy at his nonconformity and the way he presents himself."
And, perhaps surprisingly, few take issue with his tattoos.
"Personally, I wouldn't vote for him - but (the tattoos) are not a problem at all," said Tomas Pistora, a 33-year-old IT specialist from Prague. "The young people prefer him because they don't have a better choice."
Many Czechs, especially in the capital, simply aren't shocked with Franz's look because the face of the 53-year-old professor at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts has been around for years.
"The tattoo doesn't make any difference," said Jakub Fisera, a student in Prague, adding a lack of experience in politics was more an issue.
Franz calls his tattoos body art. His face is a riot of green and red swirls against a background of blue. On his hands is a portrait of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, on his chest the crucified Christ.
"A tattoo is a sign of a free will and that does not harm the freedom of anyone else," he says.
For the first time, the Czech president will be elected in a popular vote - a new system that makes it possible for independent candidates like Franz to run for the largely ceremonial post.
Vaclav Klaus, the incumbent, opposed the change. He called it "a fatal mistake" and said he feared the likes of Franz might succeed him.
A total of nine candidates are running. Unlike the Euro-skeptic Klaus who attacked the EU at every opportunity, the favorites, Zeman and Fischer, have a more moderate approach to the bloc which the country joined in 2004.
Zeman, the leftist premier in 1998-02, leads the polls with about 25 percent support. Fischer, a centrist and a former state bureaucrat, gained significant popularity when he led a caretaker government in 2009-10. He polls at about 20 percent.
As the campaign approached its end on Tuesday, eight candidates were busy on the stump. The ninth - Franz - had other matters to deal with: a final rehearsal of his opera "War with the Newts" at the State Opera.
Torn between art and politics, Franz cut short his appearance at an election debate to return to the opera house that is part of Prague's National Theater.
But he committed to staying to the end of Thursday's final televised debate. It wasn't an easy choice, but he realized his credibility demanded that he take part.
"For a Czech composer to have a world premiere in the National Theater is something extraordinary. I had to make a choice between a service to the public and the fulfillment of my life-long dream. I've made the choice and will be at the debate."
Associated Press video journalist Adam Pemble in Prague contributed to this report.