PRAGUE (AP) – Czechs started voting on Friday for a new president, choosing between a retired army general and a populist billionaire in a two-day runoff election to succeed controversy-courting Milos Zeman in the largely ceremonial post. General Petr Pavel and Andrej Babis, who is a former prime minister, advanced to a second round of voting because none of the eight initial candidates received an absolute majority in the first round two weeks ago.
The polls favour Pavel, an independent candidate who came a narrow first in the opening round with 35.40 per cent. Babis followed at 34.99 per cent.
Three other candidates pledged their support for Pavel ahead of the ballot starting on Friday.
Pavel, 61, a former chairman of NATO’s military committee, is a political newcomer. He fully endorsed the country’s military and humanitarian support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia and sees the Czech Republic’s future linked to membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Pavel called on Czech voters on Friday to take part in the ballot. “A lot is at stake,” he said.
Babis, 68, whose centrist ANO (YES) movement ended up in opposition after losing the 2021 general election, is supported by his ally Zeman, with whom he shares Eurosceptic views and the habit of using anti-migrant rhetoric.
A number of scandals hasn’t harmed Babis’ popular support, particularly with his base, older voters. Only days before the first round, a Prague court acquitted him of fraud charges in a USD2 million case involving EU subsidies.