Pavel leads ahead of Czech vote; opponent plays on war fears
PRAGUE (Reuters) -Retired general and former NATO official Petr Pavel led billionaire ex-prime minister Andrej Babis by a double-digit margin ahead of a Czech presidential election run-off vote, two final polls showed on Monday.
Czech presidents do not wield much daily powers but they appoint prime ministers, central bank governors, and have a limited role in foreign policy. They also shape public debate and can pressure governments on policies.
Pavel was polling at 58.8% to 41.2% for Babis in the survey conducted on Jan. 20-22. The two candidates meet in the second round of the election on Jan. 27-28.
Another poll by the MEDIAN agency put Pavel at 57.9% versus 42.1% for Babis.
Monday was the deadline for polling ahead of a blackout period.
Pavel, an independent backed by the centre-right government, has projected a clear pro-Western policy stance and support for Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression.
Babis, 68, has tried to label Pavel as a threat to peace, and presented himself over the past week since the first election round as a force against war.
His campaign posters declare “I will not drag Czechia into a war” and “I am a diplomat. Not a soldier”.
Pavel has dismissed the suggestions as nonsense.
Czech media reported widespread anti-Pavel messaging on disinformation websites and chain emails.
Babis, who heads the largest opposition political party, won the backing of retiring President Milos Zeman as well as figures from the extreme fringes of the political scene, including the pro-Russian former ruling Communist Party. Zeman had favoured closer ties with China and Russia, until Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
In a television debate on Sunday night, Babis caused a stir by saying he would refuse to send troops to defend NATO allies Poland and the Baltics in case they were attacked.
He later backtracked on those comments, saying he would respect NATO’s mutual defence commitments.
The Ipsos and MEDIAN polls confirmed a message in two surveys over the weekend where Pavel also led by a wide margin.
Pavel, 61, was a soldier since the communist era, but rose in the ranks after the 1989 democratic “Velvet Revolution”. He served in special forces and military diplomacy roles and led the army general staff in 2012-2015.
In the subsequent three years, he headed NATO’s military committee of national army chiefs, the principal military advisory body to the alliance’s secretary-general.
(Reporting by Jason Hovet, Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka, writing by Jan LopatkaEditing by Mark Heinrich and Bernadette Baum)