Ex-NATO general to face tycoon in Czech presidential runoff

By Krystof Chamonikolas, Deana Kjuka and Peter Laca | Bloomberg

A retired general who has pledged unwavering support for Ukraine won the first round of the Czech presidential election, advancing to the run-off against a billionaire ex-premier known for spats with the European Union.

Petr Pavel, the former top general in NATO, won by a razor-thin margin with 35.4% of the vote, according to results published by the Statistics Office on Saturday with nearly all ballots counted. Andrej Babis, a chemicals, agriculture and media magnate who leads the strongest opposition party, got 35%. The second round is scheduled for Jan. 27-28.

The central European nation of more than 10 million is choosing who will take over from President Milos Zeman, a powerful politician who has towered over the nation’s politics for almost three decades.

In the Czech Republic’s parliamentary system, the presidency carries limited powers, with key executive authority held by the government. But the head of state has a say in the creation of the Cabinet, leads the military, picks central bankers and appoints judges.

Zeman has played a dominant role since the fall of communism. During his two five-year terms as the head of state, he polarized the country by vilifying Muslim immigrants and disparaging sexual minorities and repeatedly bent constitutional conventions to carve out more powers for himself.

Pavel is running as an independent, with an endorsement from the parties in Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s coalition government. Promising a less confrontational stance, he also won endorsements from presidential candidates who collectively received more than 20% in the first round.

Pre-vote opinion polls showed Pavel as the favorite in a runoff against Babis, who as premier clashed with the EU over migrant policies and conflict-of-interest allegations regarding his companies.

“The danger is that we may not only slip to populism, but also deviate from our course that we have seen the past 30 years, which was clearly democratic, pro-western and pro-European,” Pavel said about Babis after voting ended.

The retired general’s campaign focused largely on highlighting his military achievements. A former member of special forces and intelligence divisions, he rose through the ranks to serve as the Czech army’s chief of staff and later chaired the NATO Military Committee.

He has pledged to promote LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage and child adoption by gay couples. He also advocates adopting the euro, which the Czech political establishment traditionally considers as disadvantageous for the open, $300 billion economy.

The ballot is a chance for Babis to return to a top post following his defeat in 2021 parliamentary elections. He is pledging to become a counterbalance to Fiala’s center-right coalition, which he accuses of not doing enough to help people and businesses cope with the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

A longtime ally of Zeman, who during his two five-year terms was a staunch supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin until he invaded Ukraine and a promoter closer ties with China, Babis rose to power by attacking traditional politicians as corrupt and incompetent. He also forged close ties with Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban, while also touting friendly relations with French President Emmanuel Macron.

With the Czech Republic one of the most active supporters of Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression, the war has featured among top election themes.

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