A voter inserts his ballot for the first round of the Czech Republic’s presidential elections into the ballot box at a polling station in Pruhonice, January 13, 2023. PETR DAVID JOSEK / AP
In the Czech Republic, the names of the two men who are courting the successor to Milos Zeman have now been determined. Retired General Petr Pavel and former Prime Minister Andrei Babis emerged victorious in the first round of presidential elections, according to results released on Saturday, January 14 in the evening. At the end of the first round, which took place on Friday January 13th and Saturday January 14th, Mr Pavel received 35.4% of the vote, just ahead of Mr Babis, who received 35% according to the Czech Statistical Office.
Economist Danuse Nerudova came third with 13.9% of the vote, while none of the five other candidates received more than 7%. Head to head in this first round, Mr. Pavel and Mr. Babis will face each other on January 27th and 28th in a duel that promises uncertainty.
Petr Pavel, retired General and former Chief of Staff
Petr Pavel, former Czech army chief of staff, votes for the first round of presidential elections January 13, 2023 in Cernoucek, 60 kilometers north of Prague. MICHAL CIZEK / AFP
Former military paratrooper Petr Pavel, 61, who finished just ahead of Mr. Babis at the end of this first round, has spoken out in a very different area than politics. The general is known to the general public for rescuing French soldiers besieged by the Serbs during the 1993 Bosnian War. Former Chief of Staff and former Chairman of the United Nations North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee, he is now retired.
Voting in his home village of Cernoucek, north of Prague, on January 13, Mr Pavel said the main aim of his candidacy was to restore the dignity of the presidency after Mr Zeman’s ten-year tenure. “We should also establish normal communication and try to achieve results not through confrontation but through cooperation,” he added.
When television footage showed him just ahead of Mr. Babis shortly before the end of the counting of votes on Saturday, Mr. Pavel greeted his assembled team in the historic center of Prague with loud cheers. “I’m very happy, everyone can see that,” said the otherwise serious-looking man and drew a small smile.
“I think I’d smile a lot more if the difference was, say, 10 points, but that margin is so small that I now see the hard work for Round 2 as more of a reason to celebrate,” he said. however.
Andrei Babis, the return of the populist billionaire
Former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, candidate for the presidency of the Czech Republic, throws his ballot into the ballot box during the first round of voting January 13, 2023 at a polling station in Pruhonice. PETR DAVID JOSEK / AP
Business magnate Andrej Babis, 68, has been known for his populist positions and decisions since his time as head of government. According to Forbes magazine, the man who made his fortune in agribusiness is the fifth richest person in the Czech Republic. Prime Minister from 2017 to 2021, he resigned in October 2021 after losing the general election.
The billionaire is an extremely controversial figure. On January 9, he was acquitted in the first instance in Prague of charges of tax evasion after questionable use of EU funds. Finally, after criss-crossing the country to restore his image in the summer of 2022, he announced – belatedly – his candidacy for the presidential election.
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On Saturday night after the results were announced, Mr Babis, who was in Prague at a restaurant at the headquarters of his sprawling food, media and chemical holding company Agrofert, launched his second round of the campaign. While congratulating Mr. Pavel on his narrow victory in the first round, he assured that he “lied during the debates” and “did nothing for our country”.
Mr Babis also said he feared a smear campaign by “journalists allied with Pavel” and compared the general – who once considered a career in military intelligence – to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB intelligence agent.
Bring down record inflation
Given the results achieved by both men, the second round promises to be close and full of surprises. Before the first round, polls suggested that in case of a duel between Mr. Pavel and Mr. Babis, the former could win due to his lack of experience as head of state.
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Whoever wins this election faces record inflation (15.8%) and exorbitant government deficits due to the war in Ukraine.
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The role of the Czech president is essentially ceremonial, but the head of state appoints the government, elects the central bank governor and the constitutional judges. He also serves as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
Since 2013, Mr Zeman, who once admitted to drinking six glasses of wine and three schnapps a day, has repeatedly exploited loopholes in the constitution to increase his influence.
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