Opinion polls show Pavel with a clear lead ahead of the run-off vote, which began on Friday and ends on Saturday.
Although the presidency is primarily ceremonial, the role carries significant symbolic significance. A victory for Pavel would cement a shift toward populist politics – at least for now. The race was also seen as a thunderbolt as Russia’s war in Ukraine reshaped electoral politics across Europe.
Jiri Priban, professor of law and philosophy at Cardiff University, said Pavel could show the continent that “populists can be defeated”. “It’s a very strong message for both transatlantic relations and constitutional democracy — a system that is under stress.”
The candidates are vying for President Milos Zeman, who has sought to expand the powers of the presidency since his election a decade ago. He installed an unelected caretaker government (despite failing to win parliamentary approval), refused to nominate judges and professors who displeased him, and blocked political appointments, all while currying favor with China and Russia.
The apparent preference for Pavel over Babis may also indicate that the current climate in Europe favors war hero multiethnicists over politically inclined oligarchs.
Babis, 68, is one of the richest men in the Czech Republic, owning an empire spanning agribusiness, chemicals and media. He placed his company in trust when he became prime minister in 2017. But his media often echo his nationalist and anti-refugee views. An audit by the European Commission found that he influenced the allocation of EU subsidies to his businesses.
In another domestic case, a Prague court cleared him of fraud charges last month, ruling that it was “not a crime” to transfer one of his companies to his wife and children to qualify for EU small business subsidies.
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Pavel offered voters a very different choice.
A former paratrooper, he served as part of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, and in 1993 he helped free more than 50 French soldiers from hostile territory and became a distinguished hero.
From 2012 to 2015, he served as Chief of Staff of the Czech Army, and from 2015 to 2018, he served as Chairman of the NATO Military Council.
Pavel and Babis came out on top in the first round of voting on January 15 with nearly equal votes. But then Pavel was backed by three of the six losing candidates, including runner-up Danuse Nerudova, while Babis’ support appeared to be limited to his ANO party, the far-right SPD and some fringes. partisan.
Pavel “clearly has the numbers to back him up,” said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of NYU Prague. Babis’ only chance is to “stop Pavel’s potential voters”.
That’s what he’s trying to do during a campaign that’s been hostile, rife with disinformation and dominated by one theme: war.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine had a great impact on Czech society. The country’s strong support for Ukraine has sparked protests and counter-protests. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled to the Czech Republic — a source of pride for some Czechs and dismay for others.
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Pavel vowed to keep the country firmly on a pro-Western path and to continue helping Ukraine.
Considering how many Czechs are upset by the fighting outside the EU’s borders, his campaign billboards market him as: “Leading with experience and calm in difficult times.”
Babis, meanwhile, condemns the war, while also portraying Pavel as a militant. His billboards claimed that “the general does not believe in peace” and promised: “I will not drag the Czech Republic into war. I am a diplomat, not a soldier.” Meanwhile, social media posts and chain mail falsely claimed that Pavel was planning A general mobilization.
In a recent televised debate, Babis appeared to question NATO’s collective security provisions. Asked whether he would send Czechs to the Baltic states or Poland if Russia invaded, he replied “of course not” – prompting an immediate outcry. Although he quickly walked back the words, the damage appears to have been done.
Analysts say his defeat would mark the end of an era. “After a decade under Milos Zeman, having Pavel as president will be a huge change for our international partners,” said NYU Prague’s Pehe.
“I expect his presidency to be much more low-key. He will focus on representing the country abroad,” Pech said. “Babis, on the other hand, will engage in politics. Babis will just be a continuation of Zeman”