Populist billionaire vies with ex-general for top Czech post

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A retired army general who backs military support for Ukraine and a euroskeptic billionaire who has questioned NATO’s collective defense clause are contesting for the ceremonial but prestigious post of Czech president in a runoff starting Friday.

Former Gen. Petr Pavel and Andrej Babis 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 favor Pavel, an independent candidate who came a narrow first in the first round with 35.40%. Babis followed at 34.99%. Three other candidates pledged their support for Pavel ahead of the two-day ballot starting Friday.

The winner will succeed controversy-courting Milos Zeman whose second and final term expires in March. Zeman divided the nation with his pro-Russia stance — until the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — and support for closer ties with China.

He was the first president elected by popular vote. Lawmakers elected the previous two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.

Here’s a look at the vote in the European Union and NATO member nation:

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WHAT’S AT STAKE

According to the Czech Constitution, the president picks the prime minister after a general election, one of the office’s key responsibilities.

The president also appoints members of the Central Bank board and selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

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AN EMBATTLED BILLIONAIRE

Babis, 68 a former prime minister and one of the country’s richest people, has been a divisive figure.

With Zeman, his political ally, he shares euroskeptic views despite close business ties with the West and a strong anti-migrant rhetoric, which unites him with anti-migration champion Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

Babis has been critical, among other issues, of the 27-member European Union’s plan to tackle climate change, saying it would hurt the Czech economy.

A number of scandals hasn’t harmed his popular support, particularly with his base, older voters.

Nevertheless, a quarter of a million people took to the streets — the biggest such demonstrations since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution — twice in 2019 to demand that Babis step down as prime minister over scandals, including a conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.

Babis’ ANO (YES) movement lost the parliamentary election in October 2021 after a turbulent term that included a sometimes chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A coalition of five parties formed a new government.

Before that election, Babis was hit by yet another scandal that linked him and hundreds of other wealthy people to offshore accounts, in findings by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dubbed the “Pandora Papers.” He denied wrongdoing.

A court in Prague acquitted him in January of fraud charges in a $2 million case involving EU subsidies. The prosecution still can appeal. Babis said the charges against him were politically motivated.

The Slovakia-born Babis was a member of the Communist Party before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought in democracy. In Slovakia — Czechia’s erstwhile partner in the former Czechoslovakia — he faces allegations of collaboration with the communist-era secret police, which he denies.

A POLITICAL ROOKIE GENERAL

Pavel, 61, has presented himself as the right person for the post in hard times amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

He was chairman of NATO’s military committee in 2015-18, the alliance’s highest military body. Before, he served as the chief of the general staff of the Czech army.

Pavel fully endorsed the country’s military and humanitarian support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia and sees his country’s future as closely linked to its EU and NATO membership.

After Russia annexed Ukraine’s 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 military drills together and stand firm in the face of Russian moves.

As a member of the U.N. peacekeeping mission during the war in former Yugoslavia, he helped evacuate 53 French peacekeepers in 1993, for which he received the French War Cross.

Pavel was a Communist Party member before 1989 and has said he regrets that.

Pavel’s campaign attracted an unexpectedly high support in cities considered Babis’ strongholds and the four latest public polls have predicted his victory.

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A NASTY CAMPAIGN

The campaign was marred by false accusations and controversies.

Babis accused his opponent of having been a KGB-trained communist spy, without providing any evidence, and went on to compare him to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He was also trying to present Pavel as a candidate of the current coalition government, which he blames for high inflation and surging energy prices. Pavel is running as an independent.

The Ukraine war was a core campaign issue.

Babis presented himself as a peacemaker and labeled Pavel a warmonger due to his military past. “I’m a diplomat, not a soldier,” Babis said on big billboards across the country, adding he wouldn’t lead the nation to war — even though in any case the president has no such power.

In a most controversial statement, Babis said he wouldn’t send troops to Poland or the Baltics, if his country’s NATO allies were attacked.

“Certainly not,” Babis said. “I want peace, I don’t want a war.”

He later backtracked by saying he supports NATO’s principle of collective defense. But his words were condemned by the government and Zeman had to explain to his Polish counterpart that the Czechs remain committed to their NATO obligations.

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