Pro-Western former general Pavel favoured as Czechs elect president
By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) -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 within hours.
Pavel, 61, a bearded retired general, is running as an independent and has the support of the centre-right cabinet.
He has sought to project himself as a candidate who can bridge political divides, unlike Babis who pledged to fight the government which he said failed to help people hit by soaring energy prices.
"I don't want to go after anyone's throat, halt anyone, but to seek solutions. My motto is decency, cooperation," Pavel said after voting in his home village of Cernoucek, north of Prague.
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 by double-digit margins.
Pavel enlisted in the army during the Communist era, and was decorated with a French military cross for valour during peacekeeping 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 and ability to find consensus.
He pledged to keep the central European country strongly anchored in the European Union and NATO, and continue full backing for Ukraine.
"I am proud that we were among the first who stood up for (Kyiv) and that this support has not changed since," he said on Friday.
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 from 2017 to 2021. He has had warm relations with Hungary's Viktor Orban, who has clashed with EU partners over rule of law.
Babis, who heads the biggest opposition party, portrayed himself as the representative of poorer Czechs.
"If people feel they are worse off than under Babis (era in government), they should vote Babis...and I would be their voice," he said after voting.
Babis 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 Czechs into a war. Pavel has rejected this as warmongering.
"(I voted for) Andrej Babis... I was in the army for two years and I don't like the army officers," said Jiri Maly, 60, in the suburban Prague town of Pruhonice.
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 including the pro-Russian Communist Party.
"I voted for General Pavel because – how to say it politely? – because I am looking forward to finally having a president we can be proud of," said voter Tomas Kodicek, 58.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka, Robert Muller, Jason Hovet and Jiri Skacel; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)