Czechs choose Milos Zeman’s successor in second round of presidential election
PRAGUE (AP) — Czechs began voting for a new president on Friday, choosing between a retired army general and a populist billionaire in a runoff election to succeed controversial Milos Zeman. in a largely ceremonial position.
General Petr Pavel and Andrej Babis, who is a former prime minister, qualified for a second round of voting as none of the initial eight candidates secured an outright majority in the first round two weeks ago.
The polls favor Pavel, an independent candidate who came out on top in the first round with 35.40%. Babis followed with 34.99%. Three other candidates pledged their support for Pavel ahead of Friday’s poll.
Pavel, 61, former chairman of NATO’s military committee, is a political newcomer. He fully endorsed the country’s military and humanitarian support to Ukraine in its fight against Russia and sees the Czech Republic’s future tied to EU and NATO membership.
Pavel on Friday called on Czech voters to take part in the ballot.
“There’s a lot at stake,” he said.
Babis, 68, whose centrist ANO (YES) movement found itself in opposition after losing the 2021 general election, is supported by his ally Zeman, with whom he shares Eurosceptic views and a habit of use anti-migrant rhetoric.
A number of scandals have not hurt Babis’ popular support, especially among his base, older voters.
Just days before the first round, a court in Prague acquitted him of fraud charges in a $2million case involving EU grants. Babis said the charges against him were politically motivated.
In a campaign marred by false accusations and controversy, Babis caused a stir when he said he would not send troops to Poland or the Baltics if his country’s NATO allies were attacked. He then backtracked.
“It’s a referendum on Babis,” Babis said of the vote.
Zeman has divided the nation with his pro-Russian stance – until he invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 – and his support for closer ties with China.
He was the first president elected by universal suffrage. His second and final five-year term expires in March.
Lawmakers elected the two previous presidents, Havel and Vaclav Klaus.
Polls close at 1:00 p.m. GMT on Saturday and the results will be known later in the day.
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