A leading candidate to become the Czech Republic’s first Jewish president was knocked out of the race Saturday, after failing to gain enough votes to reach the run-off election.

Jan Fischer, thought to be among the front-runners in the country’s first presidential election, got 16.4 percent of the vote, falling behind former prime minister Milos Zeman and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who got 24.2% and 23.4%, respectively.

Voting will move to a second round later in the month between Zeman and Schwarzenberg, who was considered a dark-horse candidate.

Fischer, 62, an understated former prime minister who led a caretaker government following a coalition collapse in 2009, came in third in a field on nine candidates.

Czechs are electing the country’s president in a direct popular vote for the first time, to replace euroskeptic President Vaclav Klaus, whose second and final term ends March 7.

Since Czechoslovakia officially split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993, the republic has had two presidents elected by Parliament: Vaclav Havel and Klaus. But bickering during those votes led the legislature to give that decision to the general public.

Running on a platform promoting economic growth and political transparency, Fischer is also known for his pride in what he calls the Czech Republic’s “very friendly relations with Israel.” He noted that the Czech Republic was consistently one of Europe’s most ardent supporters of Israel in times of crisis, a tradition dating back to the 1920s, when the first Czechoslovak president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, endorsed the creation of the Jewish state.

More recently, the Czech Republic was among only a handful of countries in the world to vote against upgrading the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations.

Fischer said he found it unnecessary to bluster in the same way as his chief presidential rival Zeman, who has declared his support for a preemptive strike against Iran.

“I have no need to demonstrate my friendly attitude toward Israel because everyone is familiar with it, so I don’t need to say something very strong,” he said in a wide-ranging interview, adding that he is well-aware that “Iran is the dark force in the region.”

Fischer’s professions of devotion to Israel weren’t always so robust. Before the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, it was dangerous for anyone — especially a government employee — to sympathize with Israel because the authorities toed the Soviet anti-Zionist line.

His Jewishness may have played a role in his unpopularity, though.  When Fischer took over as prime minister, a smattering of comments on blogs referred negatively to his Jewish origins. There were hints, too, that Fischer was part of a secret brotherhood, as one of his advisers was also Jewish.

In earlier interviews, however, he dismissed anti-Semitism as a Czech concern.

“This country has so many political problems, but anti-Semitism is not one of them,” he said.

JTA’s Dinah Spritzer and the Associated Press contributed to this report.