PRAGUE (AP) — A retired army general who backs military support for Ukraine and a Eurosceptic billionaire who questions NATO’s collective defense position are vying for the ceremonial but prestigious presidency of the Czech Republic in a second round starting on Friday.
Former generals Piotr Pavel and Andrei Babish made it to the second round of voting because none of the eight original candidates received an absolute majority in the first round two weeks ago.
Polls favor Pavel, an independent candidate who won first place in the first round with 35.40%. Babies followed with 34.99%. Three other candidates announced their support for Pavel ahead of a two-day vote starting on Friday.
The winner will succeed Milos Zeman, whose second and final term expires in March. Zeman divided the nation with his pro-Russian stance — prior to the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — and support for closer ties with China.
He was the first president elected by popular vote. Legislators elected two previous presidents, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus.
Here’s a look at voting in the European Union and NATO member countries:
WHAT’S ON THE BET
According to the Czech Constitution, the president chooses the prime minister after a general election, which is one of the office’s key responsibilities.
The president also appoints members of the board of the Central Bank and selects the judges of the Constitutional Court with the approval of the upper house of parliament.
Otherwise, the president has little executive power, as the country is run by a government elected and led by the prime minister.
Babiš, 68, a former prime minister and one of the country’s richest men, is divisive.
Along with his political ally Zeman, he shares Eurosceptic views, despite close business ties to the West and strong anti-immigrant rhetoric that unites him with migration campaigner Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister.
Babiš has criticized, among other things, the European Union’s 27-member plan to combat climate change, saying it will hurt the Czech economy.
A series of scandals has not hurt his popular support, especially among his base of older voters.
Yet a quarter of a million people took to the streets – the largest such demonstrations since the anti-communist Velvet Revolution of 1989 – twice in 2019 to demand that Babiš step down as prime minister over scandals, including a conflict of interest over subsidies. EU associated with his former business empire.
The Babish ANO (DA) movement lost the October 2021 parliamentary elections after a tumultuous deadline that included a sometimes chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A coalition of five parties formed a new government.
Before this election, Babiš was hit by another scandal that linked him and hundreds of other wealthy people to offshore accounts, according to the findings of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dubbed the Pandora Papers. He denied wrongdoing.
In January, a court in Prague acquitted him of fraud charges in a $2 million EU subsidy case. The prosecutor’s office can still appeal. Babiš stated that the charges against him were politically motivated.
Born in Slovakia, Babiš was a member of the Communist Party until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which led to democracy. In Slovakia – the Czech Republic’s former partner in the former Czechoslovakia – he is accused of collaborating with the communist-era secret police, which he denies.
POLITICAL NEW GENERAL
Pavel, 61, has shown himself to be the right person for the job at a difficult time amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.
From 2015-2018, he was Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, the alliance’s highest military body. Previously, he served as Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army.
Pavel fully supports the military and humanitarian support of Ukraine in its fight against Russia and believes that the future of his country is closely connected with its membership in the EU and NATO.
Following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Pavel said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2015 that NATO members should spend more on defense, conduct more joint military exercises, and stand firm in the face of Russian actions.
As part of the UN peacekeeping mission during the war in the former Yugoslavia, he participated in the evacuation of 53 French peacekeepers in 1993, for which he received the French Combat Cross.
Pavel was a member of the Communist Party until 1989 and said he regretted it.
Pavel’s campaign received surprisingly strong support in Babiš’s stronghold cities, and four recent public opinion polls predicted his victory.
The campaign was marred by false accusations and controversy.
Babiš accused his opponent of being a KGB-trained communist spy without providing any evidence and compared him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also tried to present Pavel as a candidate for the current coalition government, which he blames for high inflation and rising energy prices. Pavel is running as an independent candidate.
The war in Ukraine was the key issue of the campaign.
Babish introduced himself as a peacemaker and called Pavel a warmonger because of his military background. “I am a diplomat, not a soldier,” Babiš declared on large billboards across the country, adding that he would not lead the country into war – although the president does not have that power anyway.
In a highly controversial statement, Babiš said he would not send troops to Poland or the Baltic states if his country’s NATO allies were attacked.
“Of course not,” Babis said. “I want peace, I don’t want war.”
He later refused, stating that he supported NATO’s collective defense principle. But his words were condemned by the government, and Zeman had to explain to his Polish counterpart that the Czechs are still committed to their obligations to NATO.