By Stefan J. Bos
Over two days, Czech voters could choose from a colorful list of presidential candidates.
Populist ex-prime minister Andrej Babis, retired general Petr Pavel and university professor Danuse Nerudova are the leading contenders to become the fourth president since the Czech Republic was founded in 1993 after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Former Prime Minister and business tycoon Babis, a billionaire, participated in the vote after he was acquitted of financial wrongdoing.
The prosecution sought a suspended jail term and a fine on charges that Babis was hiding his ownership of one firm 15 years ago to illegally tap 2 million euros ($2.1 million) of European Union funds.
He allegedly used that money to build a leisure and conference center near the capital Prague, charges he vehemently denied.
The Prague Municipal Court said it had not been proven that what Babis and one of his managers did was a crime. Though prosecutors may still appeal, the verdict increases Babis’ chances of becoming president.
The 68-year-old Babis said after voting in a Prague suburb that he would focus on the Czech Republic’s urgent needs as president. He told reporters that he wanted to tackle social issues and, in his words, "to convince the government to finally start helping people and sort out the price of electricity," which is very high.
Critics say he would bring policy clashes with the Eastern European country’s center-right cabinet and will likely maintain his friendly relations with the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.
That’s why the government endorsed retired general Petr Pavel, university professor Danuse Nerudova and one other candidate among the eight running. Pavel, 61, is a former paratrooper who was decorated as a hero of the Serbo-Croatian war, during which he helped to free French troops from a war zone.
He eventually became the chief of the general staff and chair of the NATO alliance military committee.
Nerudova, the youngest leading candidate at 44 and a former academic, firmly focused on social issues and was counting primarily on younger voters. She aimed to become the Czech Republic’s first female president, including through commercials on social media.
Yet no candidate was seen winning over 50 percent in the first round, and the top two will meet in a run-off vote in two weeks.
Whoever wins will replace Milos Zeman, seen by critics as a hard-drinking and controversial politician. The 78-year-old publicly confessed to a daily diet of six glasses of wine and three shots of spirits and had arguably more influence than his predecessors.