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Pro-Western former general Pavel favoured as Czechs elect president

CZECH-ELECTION:Pro-Western former general Pavel favoured as Czechs elect president
CZECH-ELECTION:Pro-Western former general Pavel favoured as Czechs elect president Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
Copyright Thomson Reuters 2023
By Reuters
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By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE -Former Czech army chief Petr Pavel, a mainstream pro-Western candidate backing aid for Ukraine, held a commanding poll lead over billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis as Czechs began voting for a new president on Friday.

Voting booths opened at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Friday and close at 2 p.m. on Saturday, with results expected later that day.

Pavel, 61, a bearded retired general, is running as an independent and has the support of the Czech Republic's centre-right cabinet. But he has sought to project himself as a candidate who can bridge political divides.

"I see the presidential post as a duty. I served this country and its people all my life and regardless of their party affiliation or who they voted for," Pavel said in a televised debate on private broadcaster Nova on Thursday evening.

Czech presidents do not carry many day-to-day powers but pick prime ministers and central bank leaders, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers and can push the government on policies.

Betting agencies say Pavel is 10 times more likely to win than Babis, and he led final opinion polls released on Monday.

Pavel enlisted in the army during the Communist era when Prague was part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and was decorated for peacekeeping services in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He rose to lead the Czech general staff and was chairman of NATO's military committee for three years before retirement in 2018.

Pavel's colleagues have said they value his calm, determined decision-making, his ability to find consensus, and his resistance to stress.

He ran on a platform to keep his central European country strongly anchored in the European Union and NATO, and backs further military aid for Ukraine against Russia's invasion.

Pavel also favours adoption of the euro common currency, a step that has been on the back-burner for years, and progressive policies such as gay marriage.

BABIS PLAYS WAR CARD

Babis, 68, is a combative business magnate in the chemicals, food, farming and media sectors who was prime minister for the period 2017-2021. He has had warm relations with Hungary's Viktor Orban, who has clashed with EU partners over rule of law.

Babis heads the biggest opposition party and has been a key figure in Czech politics for the past decade. He has criticised the government for doing too little in a cost of living crisis while campaigning.

He centred the finale of his campaign on fears of the war in Ukraine spreading. He said he would offer to broker peace talks and suggested that as a former soldier, Pavel could drag the Czech Republic into a war. Pavel has rejected this as warmongering.

On Friday, Babis said on Czech Radio that even small nations like Norway could bring about peace treaties. "So we could try with Russia and Ukraine," he said.

Babis has the support of outgoing President Milos Zeman, a divisive figure over his 10 years in office who pushed for closer ties with Beijing and - until Russia invaded Ukraine - Moscow, as well as fringe forces such as the pro-Russian Communist Party.

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