Retired general, ex-PM lead the field in Czech presidential election

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  • General Petr Pavel, ex-PM Andrej Babis lead polls
  • Pavel seen favourite in second round
  • Czech presidents not executive but hold significant powers
  • All candidates more pro-western than incumbent Milos Zeman

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE, Jan 13 (Reuters) – A retired general who held a senior NATO military job heads into the Czech Republic’s presidential election starting on Friday as a favourite ahead of main rivals, a divisive former prime minister and an economics professor.

Presidents in the NATO and European Union member country do not hold daily executive powers but appoint prime ministers, central bankers and judges, and have a say in foreign affairs.

Retired General Petr Pavel, 61, running as an independent, led two out of four final polls.

Former prime minister Andrej Babis, 68, a billionaire heading the biggest opposition party in parliament was ahead in the other two.

However, a separate poll favours Pavel in a likely run-off over Babis, who has framed the vote as a protest against the centre-right government he accuses of doing too little to help people handle soaring living costs.

No candidate is seen winning over 50% in the first round when voting ends on Saturday, with a run-off between the top two likely to follow in two weeks.

While there are eight candidates, only Pavel, Babis and economics professor Danuse Nerudova, 44, have a chance of making it to the second round, polls show. There pollsters give Pavel and edge, expecting him to gather more votes from other candidates than Babis. Betting agency Fortuna saw Pavel as favourite at 1-1.48 to win ahead of Babis at 1-3.40.

Nerudova, 44, is third in polls and would be the first woman in the job, first held by Vaclav Havel after the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia and now occupied by Milos Zeman, who tried to build closer relations with China and Russia for most of his two five-year terms.

PAVEL DOUBTS VISEGRAD GROUP

A friend of Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, Babis visited French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday to demonstrate his wider connections in Europe.

Pavel has distanced himself from Orban, who has squared off with EU partners over rule of law, and has questioned the merits of central Europe’s Visegrad Group, which also includes Poland and Slovakia.

“When we differ so much today on fundamental issues, there is a question whether we should leave this format altogether,” Pavel said in a debate on Wednesday.

Pavel and Nerudova have spoken in favour of euro adoption, and the tradition of Havel’s human rights-led foreign policy.

While in power in 2017-2021, Babis was found in conflict of interest by the European Commission due to subsidies paid to his Agrofert business empire, which is in a trust. He was cleared this week in an EU subsidy fraud case.

Babis has been the most lukewarm in supporting Ukraine among top candidates. But that policy is in the hands of the government, which has been among Kyiv’s most steadfast supporters.

Pavel has both a Soviet-era and western military education, has served in a peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and led NATO’s military committee in 2015-2018 which advises the alliance’s general secretary.

A man rides his bicycle past election poster of a candidate for the Czech presidential elections, former chairman of the NATO Military Committee and former chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army Petr Pavel, in Prague, Czech Republic. The first round of presidential elections in the Czech Republic will be held on 13 and 14 January 2023. EPA-EFE/MARTIN DIVISEK

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