Barbs and beards from Babiš as crunch Czech election test looms

<span>Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA</span>
Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

The former Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš faces a potentially career-defining reckoning this weekend when voters deliver their verdict in a presidential election that polls indicate he could lose heavily.

The combative Babiš, who together with his ally the outgoing president, Miloš Zeman, has dominated the central European country’s politics over the past decade, is up against a decorated military figure, Petr Pavel – a retired general and former Nato second-in-command – in a head-to-head runoff that many observers see as pivotal to the future of Czech democracy.

Polls open on Friday and close on Saturday.

Pavel, 61, an ex-army chief of staff, has adopted a statesman-like pose consistent with his vow to restore dignity to a political office that many Czechs feel has been sullied by Zeman’s provocative antics. Zeman once joked with Vladimir Putin that he should “liquidate” journalists, and said on a state visit to China that he was there to learn “how to stabilise society”.

Pavel’s supporters have drawn a contrast by invoking the spirit of the late Václav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who became the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Opinion surveys suggest Pavel’s message is resonating. Two Czech polling agencies, Median and Stem, have shown Pavel ahead by about 58% to 42%. That is a much wider gap than in the first round two weeks ago, when Babiš finished just behind Pavel in a bigger field, though neither candidate won the necessary majority of votes cast to avoid a runoff.

Pavel has also conveyed the impression of popular support by staging mass rallies in Brno and Ostrava, the two biggest Czech cities outside the capital, Prague.

In response, Babiš has resorted to no-holds-barred attack, painting Pavel as a warmonger bent on dragging the Czech Republic into conflict on the side of Ukraine in its fight against Russia – a tactic denounced by critics as misinformation – while portraying himself as a victim of death threats and smears.

A day after his first-round defeat, Babiš – a billionaire tycoon who owns a multi-industry business empire – took aim at Pavel’s military credentials by unveiling a billboard bearing the slogan: “I will not drag the Czech Republic into war: I’m a diplomat, not a soldier.”

Czech presidential candidate Petr Pavel attends the last radio debate before the presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, 13 January 13.
Czech presidential candidate Petr Pavel attends the last radio debate before the presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, 13 January 13. Photograph: David W Černý/Reuters

This was followed by an anonymous text message purportedly from Pavel’s campaign thanking voters for their support in the first-round poll and instructing them to “report to the nearest branch of the armed forces, where you will receive the necessary weapons for mobilisation to Ukraine”.

The texts prompted a police investigation, as Pavel alleged dirty tricks and pointed the finger at Babiš supporters. Pavel has also complained about video footage circulating on social media that appeared to have been carefully edited to falsely depict him advocating war against Russia.

There is no evidence of Babiš’s direct involvement in either episode. Yet the candidate expanded on the theme in headline-grabbing fashion in a Sunday night debate on publicly funded Czech television, which he had initially pledged to boycott before a late change of heart prompted by plummeting poll numbers.

Babiš arrived appearing notably more hirsute than usual. He had allowed his previously close-cropped and barely perceptible goatee beard to sprout, in what may have been an effort to compete with his opponent’s luxuriant, Habsburg-style facial hair.

He then triggered an outcry by appearing to undercut Nato’s article 5 provision on collective security, answering “absolutely not” when asked if he would deploy Czech troops to Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion.

After condemnation from Poland, Babiš issued a clarifying tweet, insisting he respected Nato obligations. But the diplomatic damage was done – and Pavel followed up with his own tweet, in Polish, pledging an early visit to Poland if elected.

Andrej Babiš sitting in a restaurant after a presidential election campaign event in Brno.
Andrej Babiš sitting in a restaurant after a presidential election campaign event in Brno. Photograph: Martin Divíšek/EPA

Babiš announced on Tuesday that he was abandoning public campaigning after receiving a death threat which he reported to the police, days after reporting that his wife had received a bullet in the post, and demanded an end to “hatred and aggression”.

Pavel responded witheringly, issuing an invitation to Babiš on Twitter “to calm the situation” and asserting that the charged atmosphere was “a result of your campaign”.

Jan Hartl, founder of the Stem polling group, called Babiš’s tactics “an improvisation” aimed at wooing late supporters by opening up radical divisions but said they were unlikely to work. “Czech public opinion is not very radical and isn’t showing the kind of radicalisation that Babiš is trying to bring into the race,” he said. “I doubt he can attract many new voters by doing this.”