By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic should stay close to the European Union's core and talk of holding a referendum on leaving the bloc is dangerous, presidential candidate Jiri Drahos said in an interview.
Polls show that Drahos, 68, is the main challenger to incumbent Milos Zeman, who has fostered ties with Russia and China while sympathising with far-right and far-left groups and criticising the EU, mainly over its migration policy.
The country held parliamentary elections in October and it will choose a president in January.
"If we want to decide something then we should be at the table where such decisions are taken. I would very much like to see the Czech Republic at the table where Europe's future is decided," Drahos told Reuters.
Although Czech presidents have limited powers, their role is crucial in situations like the forming of a new government. Presidents can also sway public opinion and influence foreign policy, though the government exerts daily control.
Zeman says he is an EU-federalist. He has criticised the EU's Russia sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and has also said he favours a referendum on leaving the EU, though he said he would vote to stay in it.
Drahos, a chemist by training, who has led the Czech Academy of Sciences, said both EU and NATO membership are vital his country.
"To play with the (expression) 'referendum on leaving the European Union' is very hazardous," he said.
Czechs are the least enthusiastic nation when it comes to the EU in the wake of Zeman's five year presidency and a decade under Vaclav Klaus. A Eurobarometer poll in October showed that only 29 percent of Czechs saw EU membership as a "good thing".
Drahos said people should be more aware of the EU's benefits but should criticise where appropriate.
"LET'S DO TRADE"
He rejected Zeman's warm stance towards Russia and China and said Czech foreign policy should be more self-confident.
"Let's do trade, but let's do it in a self-confident way. We are a small country but that does not mean that we have to cringe," he said.
A November poll commissioned by news website www.seznam.cz news website showed Zeman, 73, as the most likely winner of the first round on Jan. 12-13 ahead of Drahos. But it predicted a dead heat in any run-off vote to be held Jan 26-27.
The next president will most likely need to cooperate with a government chaired by billionaire Andrej Babis whose ANO party won the October election and is building a minority cabinet.
Zeman, who backs Babis, plans to appoint Babis's cabinet on Dec. 13. Babis will face an uncertain confidence vote but may be in office for months with Zeman's consent even if he loses.
Initial votes in the new parliament showed cooperation among ANO, Communists and the SPD party which campaigned with anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam agenda.
Drahos said that if elected, he would be watching for any attempts to sway the country away from standard democratic path.
"I would be a professional, but I would be on guard, because a government leaning on undemocratic parties creates a concern at least that our democracy could be in danger," he said.
(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jan Lopatka and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)