Berliner TageBlatt - Retired NATO general and billionaire ex-PM in Czech presidential run-off

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Retired NATO general and billionaire ex-PM in Czech presidential run-off
Retired NATO general and billionaire ex-PM in Czech presidential run-off / Foto: © AFP

Retired NATO general and billionaire ex-PM in Czech presidential run-off

Retired NATO general Petr Pavel and billionaire former prime minister Andrej Babis topped the first round of the Czech presidential election on Saturday.

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Pavel scored 35.4 percent, just ahead of Babis with 35.0 percent, while economist Danuse Nerudova came in third with 13.9 percent, according to final results from the Czech Statistical Office.

None of the five other candidates earned more than seven percent.

Babis and Pavel now enter a run-off on January 27-28 in a bid to become only the fourth president since the Czech Republic was founded in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The winner will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken and divisive political veteran, following a period marked by the country's EU presidency last year as the war in Ukraine raged.

The new head of state will face record inflation in the central European country of 10.5 million people, as well as bulging public finance deficits related to the Ukraine conflict.

Business tycoon and former prime minister Babis, 68, is the fifth wealthiest person in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes magazine.

He served as prime minister in 2017-2021, constantly battling questions about his dual role as politician and entrepreneur.

Pavel, 61, is a former paratrooper who was decorated as a hero of the Serbo-Croatian war during which he helped free French troops from a war zone.

He went on to become the chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO's military committee.

- 'More of a diplomat' -

Both Babis and Pavel were members of the Communist Party in the 1980s when the former Czechoslovakia was ruled by Moscow-steered communists.

Babis is facing allegations he signed up as an agent with the Communist secret police at the time, while Pavel climbed the ranks in the country's army which was constantly on alert during the Cold War.

On Saturday, Pavel greeted his team in a co-working space in Prague's historic centre to loud cheers as TV footage showed he moved ahead of Babis just before the end of the vote count.

"I'm very happy, everyone can see that," said the typically serious Pavel, with a small smile.

"I think I would smile much more if the difference were, say, 10 percent, but this margin is so thin that I can now see the hard work for the second round rather than a reason to celebrate," he added.

In a restaurant at the headquarters of his sprawling Agrofert food, media and chemicals holding, Babis was quick to kick off his second-round campaign after the vote.

He congratulated Pavel on the first-round victory but said the winner "lied in debates" and "did not do anything for our country".

Babis also said he feared a smear campaign from "journalists allied with Pavel" and likened the general -- who had once pondered a career in military intelligence -- to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former agent of the KGB secret service.

Polls suggested before the election that Pavel would beat Babis if he faced him in the second round.

Pavel can now get support from centrist voters whose candidates failed in the first round. Babis may rely on the voters of a failed far-right candidate.

The Czech president's role is largely ceremonial, but the head of state names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges, and serves as top commander of the armed forces.

 

She told AFP his replacement should "be reliable, think of all people, make our country flourish and develop, ensure peace and make our children happy".

F.Pavlenko--BTB