Retired army General Petr Pavel narrowly defeated populist billionaire Andrej Babis in the first round of the Czech presidential election to set up a runoff vote between the political newcomer and the former prime minister.
Pavel and Babis advanced to a second round of voting because none of the eight candidates seeking the country’s largely ceremonial presidency received a majority of votes in the initial round, which was held on Friday and Saturday.
With the ballots from 99.9 per cent of the polling statins counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Pavel had 35.39 per cent of the vote compared with 35.00 per cent for Babis.
“It's such a close result that I can already see the hard work for us ahead of the second round," Pavel said. “Every vote will count."
Pavel is a former chairman of NATO’s military committee, the alliance’s highest military body,
He fully endorsed the country’s military and humanitarian support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia and sees the Czech Republic’s future linked to membership in the European Union and NATO.
Babis said he was delighted with the result, which was more than the 27.1 per cent that his centrist ANO (YES) movement received in the 2021 general election.
“It's absolutely great," he said.
Babis congratulated Pavel on his victory, but immediately went on the attack against his opponent.
“I don't understand why he's running," he said, stressing Pavel's past as a soldier and a Communist Party member.
The Slovakia-born Babis was, however, a member of the Communist Party before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought in democracy and faces accusations of cooperating with the communist-era secret police in his native country.
Another of Babis' challengers, Danuse Nerudova, who was rector of Mendel University in Brno, finished third with 13.9 per cent, while conservative former diplomat Pavel Fischer was fourth with 6.8 per cent.
Both Nerudova and Fischer pledged support for Pavel in the runoff in two weeks.
Czechs are picking a successor to Milos Zeman whose second and final term expires in March.
Voter turnout was 68.2 per cent, more than 61.9 per cent in the previous 2018 vote.
Voting in the Czech presidential election at the Czech Embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, had to be interrupted for an hour because of a Russian missile attack earlier on Saturday, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.