Retired general, former Prime Minister in the second round of the Czech presidential election

  • Retired general Petr Pavel wins first round for former prime minister
  • Presidents appoint officials, but have little executive power
  • Pavel may have a lead in the second round in two weeks
  • Babis would clash with the centre-right government

PRAGUE, Jan. 14 (Reuters) – Retired General Petr Pavel narrowly defeated billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the first round of Saturday’s Czech presidential election, securing a solid foundation for a second round in two weeks. .

The position has no executive power, but has significant powers in appointing prime ministers, heads of central banks and appointing judges to the constitutional court. Presidents also have limited authority in foreign affairs and are commanders-in-chief of the military.

The results from 99.99% of the constituencies showed that Pavel won with 35.39%, ahead of Babis with 35.00%.

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Both Pavel, former chief of general staff and chairman of NATO’s military committee, and belligerent opposition leader Babis who served as prime minister in 2017-2021, would likely be more pro-Western than outgoing incumbent Milos Zeman, who has closer ties to China promoted and, until last year’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia.

Pavel, 61, is strongly pro-Western and supports further military aid to Ukraine and the introduction of the euro.

Babis, who built a chemical, agricultural and media empire now registered in trust funds, would be a smaller change as he shares Zeman’s warm relations with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who is at odds with partners of the European Union on the rule of law.

Babis, 68, has spoken out against more Czech military aid to Ukraine in the past and said on Saturday he would try to organize a peace summit. The current centre-right government, which decides on that policy, is one of the staunchest supporters of Kiev in the West.

Tough SECOND ROUND FOR BABIS

Pavel took aim at Babis, calling him a populist and a threat.

“There is a danger that we will not only slide into populism, but also stray from the course we have been on for the past 30 years, clearly pro-democracy, pro-Western, pro-European,” he said after partial results were known.

Pollsters have given Pavel an edge over Babis in a runoff as he is likely to attract more people to vote for the six other candidates who lost in the first round.

In third place is economics professor Danuse Nerudova with 13.9%. Admitting defeat, she congratulated Pavel and said she would meet him to offer support.

“There is still a great evil here and it is called Andrej Babis,” she told supporters and reporters.

Pavel is supported by the centre-right cabinet, while Babis, whose ANO party is the largest in parliament, has taken the vote as a sign of dissatisfaction with the government’s response to high inflation and energy prices.

With the support of Zeman, Babis has pledged to put pressure on the cabinet to provide more help to households.

“Pavel would only carry out the will of the government,” Babis said after the vote. “This anti-social government wants to raise our taxes.”

For some voters, there was frustration that the first-round winners were members of the Communist Party before the end of its rule in 1989.

Babis worked in foreign trade and was registered as an informant of the communist-era secret police, which he denies. Pavel started his military career in the 1980s and followed military intelligence training.

Babis attacked Pavel during training on Saturday, saying the only communist-era intelligence officer in power in Europe was Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

While he was Prime Minister, Babis was found in a conflict of interest by the European Commission over subsidies paid to his business empire Agrofert, which is in a trust. He was acquitted this week in an EU subsidy fraud case.

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Reporting by Jan Lopatka; additional reporting by Kuba Stezycki and Jiri Skacel; Edited by Jonathan Oatis, Christina Fincher and Mark Potter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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