PRAGUE (AP) — Czechs started voting 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.
Gen. 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 favor Pavel, an independent candidate who came a narrow first in the opening round with 35.40%. Babis followed at 34.99%. Three other candidates pledged their support for Pavel ahead of the ballot starting 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 and NATO.
Pavel called on Czech voters 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 euroskeptic 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 $2 million case involving EU subsidies. Babis said the charges against him were politically motivated.
In a campaign marred by false accusations and controversies, Babis caused a stir by stating that he wouldn’t send troops to Poland or the Baltics, if his country’s NATO allies were attacked. He later backtracked.
“It’s a referendum about Babis,” Babis said about the vote.
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. His second and final five-year term expires in March.
Lawmakers elected the previous two presidents, Havel and Vaclav Klaus.
Polls close at 1300GMT on Saturday, and the results will be known later that day.
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