With nearly all the votes counted in the first round of the Czech Republic’s presidential election, retired army General Petr Pavel eked out a narrow victory over billionaire populist and former Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Pavel won 35.39% of the votes Saturday versus 35% for Babis in the eight-candidate field. The two will face off against each other in another round of voting in two weeks.
Economics professor Danuse Nerudova finished third with 13.9% of the vote. No other candidate received more than 7%.
Political analysts had predicted a close contest between the 68-year-Babis and the 61-year-old Pavel.
Babis was the leading opposition candidate, and Czech political analyst and writer Jiří Pehe described him as an “oligarch populist” who, he said, “flirts with the political orientation” of Hungarian President Viktor Orban.
Orban, an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump, comes under frequent criticism from the European Union, which has accused him of stifling democratic institutions.
Pavel, a former chair of NATO’s military committee, received the endorsement of the government. He and Nerudova, were seen as the most pro-Western, pro-democratic candidates.
Nerudova would have been the first woman to hold the office of president.
Political analyst Pehe, who leads New York University’s academic center in Prague, told VOA the war in Ukraine is likely to play a significant role in the elections, as it has raised security and foreign policy concerns to a higher level than they otherwise would be in the election.
That was likely to favor Pavel, Pehe said, because of his extensive military and international experience. The political analyst said Pavel has been an enthusiastic supporter of Ukraine as the country defends itself from Russian attacks, while Babis has been more ambiguous.
Pehe said polls indicated the economy was a major issue for Czech voters, which could help Babis, as he has stressed domestic issues over aid to Ukraine. But Pehe added that the voters want to see the Czech Republic maintain strong ties with the West and NATO, likely helped Pavel.
Recent Gallup polling shared with VOA shows that approval of EU leadership has risen to 49% in the country, the highest level recorded in 13 years. Approval of Russian leadership, meanwhile, is at a 13-year low of 5%.
Corruption is also a major concern of Czech voters, according to the 2022 Gallup polling. It showed that 74% of the public believe that corruption is widespread in the government, a belief that has been fairly consistent since 2006.
On the positive side, 65% of respondents told Gallup they are confident in the honesty of elections.
The winner of the election will take over from current President Milos Zeman, who is completing his second term. Pehe said Zeman became a divisive figure — who was quite pro-Russia and China — when he attempted to over-step his presidential powers as designated by the nation’s constitution.
In the Czech government, the president is elected by the popular vote and appoints the prime minister, but the job is otherwise a largely ceremonial post.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. Myroslava Gongadze reported from Warsaw.