Populist billionaire vies with ex-general for top Czech post

A retired army general who backs military support for Ukraine and a euroskeptic billionaire who has questioned NATO’s collective defense clause are contesting for the ceremonial but prestigious post of Czech president in a runoff starting Friday.

Former Gen. Petr Pavel and Andrej Babis advanced to a second round of voting because none of the eight initial candidates received an absolute majority in the first round two weeks ago.

The polls favor Pavel, an independent candidate who came a narrow first in the first round with 35.40%. Babis followed at 34.99%. Three other candidates pledged their support for Pavel ahead of the two-day ballot starting Friday.

The winner will succeed controversy-courting Milos Zeman whose second and final term expires in March. Zeman divided the nation with his pro-Russia stance — until the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine — and support for closer ties with China.

He was the first president elected by popular vote. Lawmakers elected the previous two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.

Here’s a look at the vote in the European Union and NATO member nation:

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WHAT’S AT STAKE

According to the Czech Constitution, the president picks the prime minister after a general election, one of the office’s key responsibilities.

The president also appoints members of the Central Bank board and selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.

Otherwise, the president has little executive power since the country is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.

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AN EMBATTLED BILLIONAIRE

Babis, 68 a former prime minister and one of the country’s richest people, has been a divisive figure.

With Zeman, his political ally, he shares euroskeptic views despite close business ties with the West and a strong anti-migrant rhetoric, which unites him with anti-migration champion Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister.

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Babis has been critical, among other issues, of the 27-member European Union’s plan to tackle climate change, saying it would hurt the Czech economy.

A number of scandals hasn’t harmed his popular support, particularly with his base, older voters.

Nevertheless, a quarter of a million people took to the streets — the biggest such demonstrations since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution — twice in 2019 to demand that Babis step down as prime minister over scandals, including a conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.

Babis’ ANO (YES) movement lost the parliamentary election in October 2021 after a turbulent term that included a sometimes chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A coalition of five parties formed a new government.

Before that election, Babis was hit by yet another scandal that linked him and hundreds of other wealthy people to offshore accounts, in findings by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dubbed the “Pandora Papers.” He denied wrongdoing.

A court in Prague acquitted him in January of fraud charges in a $2 million case involving EU subsidies. The prosecution still can appeal. Babis said the charges against him were politically motivated.

The Slovakia-born Babis was a member of the Communist Party before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought in democracy. In Slovakia — Czechia’s …read more

Source:: Headlines News4jax

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