The people of the Czech Republic will take part in the country’s first ever direct presidential election on Friday and Saturday, beginning a new era of electoral populism in a country where behind-the-scenes political wrangling has been the rule since the fall of communism.

Nine candidates are in the running to make history in this Central European country of 11 million, and two have emerged as frontrunners in what is gearing up to be nail-bitingly close race.

Current President Vaclav Klaus was indirectly elected, as was his predecessor Vaclav Havel. Under that system, the 281 senators and deputies who make up the bicameral parliament voted for their candidate of choice.

In effect, the head of state for an entire country was decided in a few government buildings in Prague.

Klaus represents the Civic Democratic Party, which known by its Czech abbreviation ODS. The center-right group now holds a plurality of seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. The upper house is dominated by the left-leaning opposition: the Czech Social Democratic Party, which goes by its Czech acronym CSSD.

Klaus’s 2008 re-election to the presidency (he first won the post in 2003) was very close and somewhat controversial; it involved a great deal of political deal-making that threatened the transparency of the process. So when the ODS cobbled together a governing coalition in 2010, its partners signed on only under the guarantee that the next presidential election would be direct.

And so it was decided. The change was made official with a constitutional amendment last February, and on Jan. 11-12, Czech citizens will take the presidential election into their own hands for the first time ever.

It hasn’t been a smooth process. The ballot was nearly delayed when one former presidential candidate, Tomio Okamura, filed a complaint after being disqualified. But his appeal was rejected, and the Czech Constitutional Court ruled last week that the elections would still be held according to schedule.

Now two of the nine candidates running -- both former prime ministers -- are the clear contenders.

One of them is Jan Fischer, an independent politician who served as a caretaker prime minister for just over a year in 2009-10. Fischer, a well-respected statistician and economist, has been widely regarded as the frontrunner -- that is, until recently.

The Czech paper Ceske Noviny reported on Monday that Milos Zeman, who represented the CSSD as prime minister from 1998-2002 but now heads the young Party of Civic Rights, has eked past Fischer in polls.

In a country where underhanded politics is a major concern, Zeman’s personality has been a distinct advantage. The politician is known for his caustic humor and quick wit. He smokes and drinks; his manner is direct.

Best of all, he seems to be fairly incorruptible. The German magazine Der Spiegel points to a telling anecdote wherein a Czech gangster, in a conversation that was being surreptitiously recorded by police, complained that Zeman was impossible to bribe, adding that the former prime minister wanted only “a sandwich, three pickles and for people to like him.”

This has given Zeman a populist appeal that could take him far.

Fischer has support from many Czech business leaders, who recall his capable stewardship of fiscal matters while he was prime minister. But that may actually hurt his chances with the broader public, who tend to be wary of politicians’ connections to wealthy power players.

In terms of policy, the two leaders are not polar opposites. Both profess lukewarm affinity for the European Union, both presided over periods of economic growth as prime minister, and both have made promises of political transparency a key platform in their campaigns.

But Fischer is widely considered more market-friendly, and is more popular with young people in urban areas. Polls indicate that Zeman, the everyman with strong leftist roots, appeals to an older segment of the population. He also enjoys the backing of his former rival, President Klaus.

Voters might not come to a final decision this weekend; a runoff between Fischer and Zeman is likely Jan. 25-26.

The popular vote will be a symbolically significant one, but it is worth remembering that the president of the Czech Republic does not wield as much power as the the prime minister, a post currently held by Petr Necas of the ODS.

But the prime ministerial post has been a revolving door ever since the Czech Republic came into existence with the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, with politicians unable to maintain control amid ongoing political scuffles. Necas himself nearly lost his title this week when a coalition partner threatened to jump ship; the crisis was averted on Tuesday, but the situation is still tense.

The incoming Czech president may not be the most powerful politician in the country, but he will at least enjoy the popular mandate of the people. With any luck, that will lend some measure of stability to balance Prague’s unending political tumult.