Former Czech general Pavel commands lead ahead of run-off

Presidential candidate in Czech presidential election 2023 and former Czech army chief Petr Pavel speaks to his supporters during an election campaign rally in the Old Town Square on Jan 25, 2023 in Prague. (PHOTO / AFP)

PRAGUE – Former Czech army chief Petr Pavel, a mainstream pro-Western candidate backing aid for Ukraine, held a commanding lead over billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis as Czechs headed to a run-off vote for a new president on Friday and Saturday.

Pavel, 61, a bearded retired general, ran as an independent and had the support of the Czech Republic's center-right cabinet.

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 put him at 10 times more likely to win than Babis, and he led final opinion polls released on Monday.

Voting starts at 2 pm (1300 GMT) on Friday and ends at 2 pm on Saturday, with results expected later that day.

Former Czech army chief Petr Pavel's colleagues have said they value his calm, determined decision-making, his ability to find consensus, and his resistance to stress

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 special military operation.

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

At a final rally that brought thousands to Prague's historic Old Town Square on Wednesday, Pavel sought to project himself as a candidate who could bridge political trenches.

"When I served in the army, I served the country and all in it regardless of political preferences, and I wish to serve like that as president," he told the crowd.

"We all want democracy, freedom, tolerance, decency, solving problems through cooperation."

READ MORE: Czech government survives no-confidence vote

Babis plays war card

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

Babis built the finale of his campaign on fears of the conflict in Ukraine triggered by Russia's military operation 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 rejected the accusations as nonsense and warmongering.

As head of the largest opposition party, Babis also presented the vote as a protest against a government he said did little to help people cope with soaring energy prices.