The Czech Republic’s presidential election this weekend pits a retired general, a billionaire ex-prime minister and an economics professor in a battle to replace Milos Zeman, the retiring heavyweight of the country’s post-communist era.
Andrej Babis, the former government head who now leads the opposition, would bring policy clashes with the Central European country’s centre-right cabinet and is likely to maintain his friendly relations with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.
The two other top candidates would take a firm pro-Western course and back the government’s strong support of Ukraine.
The European Union and NATO country’s presidents do not wield much executive power but are stronger than in some other parliamentary systems.
Presidents have a strong say in forming governments through prime minister appointments. They also represent the country abroad, are chief commanders of the armed forces, and appoint central bank board members.
Zeman’s last 10 years in office were marked by forceful interventions in domestic politics and discord in foreign policy as he sought to build ties with China and also Russia, until Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine.
The election comes as inflation is running near 20% amid soaring energy prices and the country is in a mild recession.
Final opinion polls give high chances to retired general Petr Pavel, 61, former head of NATO’s top military committee in 2015-2018, who has campaigned on his service credentials and pro-Western stance. He has repeatedly taken aim at Babis and Zeman.
“Babis personifies a lot of what I consider to be a great danger for democracy, populism,” he told videoblogger Cestmir Strakaty last week.
Babis, 68, a farming, chemicals and media billionaire whose ANO party is the strongest in parliament, got a boost when a court cleared him on Monday of fradulently getting a 2 million euro EU subsidy.
Economics professor Danuse Nerudova, 44, would be the first woman in the post. She dropped to third place in polls as she fought against reports of irregularities in graduate studies at a university she used to lead.
No candidate is expected to win outright on Friday and Saturday, forcing a runoff between the two top finishers two weeks later. Polls show Babis would face an uphill battle in the second round.
BABIS AGAINST GOVERNMENT
For some voters, there is frustration that more than 30 years after the end of Communist rule, the election’s two frontrunners were members of that ruling party prior to 1989. Pavel started his military career in the 1980s and went through intelligence training. Babis was registered as an informant of the secret police, though he denies that.
Pavel and Nerudova have a clearer pro-Ukraine message than Babis. Both support adopting the euro, a subject successive governments including Babis’s have avoided.
Babis runs with the support of Zeman, and targets older and poorer voters.
“Our country is getting poorer. The government…absolutely fails to cope with the crisis,” he said in a campaign video. “I will not let the government get a breather and will force it to work for you.”
Babis has opposed more military aid to Ukraine from Prague, which has been among the most active supporters of Kyiv.
Political analyst Jiri Pehe, head of New York University in Prague, said Pavel and Nerudova would bring a clear break from Zeman while Babis could try push the boundaries of presidential powers.
“We will see a radical change if Pavel or Nerudova wind up in the presidential post,” he said. “(Babis) would in general terms try to pursue the kind of policies that would be close to what we see in today’s Poland or Hungary.”