Ex-PM, NATO general, economist lead Czech presidential vote

Three candidates -- a billionaire ex-premier, a former NATO general and an economist -- lead the polls ahead of Friday's first round of Czech presidential election.

The winner will become head of state of a country battling record inflation and bulging public finance deficits because of the war in Ukraine.

The polls suggest that the three leading contenders are the only ones in the running, Josef Mlejnek, an analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP. "It is 99-percent clear that two out of the three will make the run-off."

Five other candidates have been trailing in opinion surveys behind embattled former prime minister Andrej Babis, 68, former paratrooper Petr Pavel, 61, and economist Danuse Nerudova, 44, the only woman running.

Unless someone wins more than 50 percent in the first round, which is considered unlikely, a second round will pit the top two contenders on January 27-28.

The winner will succeed the 78-year-old Milos Zeman, whose final term ends in March.

Zeman, a hard-drinking and outspoken politician -- he once confessed to a daily diet of six glasses of wine and three shots of spirits -- has wielded more influence than is usual for a president here.

While the role is largely ceremonial, it is the head of state who names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges and serves as top commander of the armed forces.

The new president will be the fourth since the Czech Republic emerged as an independent country after splitting with Slovakia in 1993.

- The leading contenders -

Babis -- who has a tiny edge in opinion polls -- has a net worth of just over $4 bn, according to Forbes magazine.

But the polls also suggest that both Pavel and Nerudova would beat Babis if they faced him in the second round.

He has been plagued by his communist past as an alleged secret police agent and has also had to defend questions about his business dealings.

On Monday, a Prague court acquitted him in an EU subsidy fraud case worth $2 million.

Vowing to be a "strong, active, independent, fair and hard-working" president, Babis enjoys a steady 30-percent support for his populist ANO movement.

He served as head of government in 2017-2021, before losing a general election to current Prime Minister Petr Fiala's centre-right coalition.

Fiala's government has endorsed both Pavel and Nerudova over Babis. The outgoing president Zeman, who is often at odds with the government, has backed Babis.

Unlike his rivals, Babis chose to pare down his campaign to meetings with citizens, carefully avoiding the election debates.

- Polling close -

Pavel is campaigning on a bid to "restore order" in the EU member and offer "experienced and calm leadership". His military career included leading the NATO Military Committee in 2015-2018.

An elite paratrooper and highly decorated, he once helped free French troops from a Serbo-Croatian war zone.

Nerudova, the youngest candidate, focused on social networks in her campaign. She also never missed an occasion to highlight her strong family ties.

She is a career academic who rose to become the rector of Mendel University in her hometown of Brno, and has vowed to "leave the ego behind" and "communicate with all groups of people".

Babis led in two separate opinion polls published by CNN Prima News and the Ipsos agency Sunday and Monday but trailed Pavel in another two on the same days, published by Czech Television and the Median agency.

They scored 26-29.5 percent, while Nerudova's ratings reached 21-25 percent.

"My guess is Babis will make it to the second round," said analyst Mlejnek. "So the question now is whether against Pavel or Nerudova."

None of the other candidates got more than 10 percent.

They include centrist senators Pavel Fischer and Marek Hilser, far-right lawmaker Jaroslav Basta, entrepreneur Karel Divis and former Charles University rector Tomas Zima.

Polling stations open for the first round at 2:00 pm Friday (1300 GMT) and close at 10:00 pm, then reopening at 8:00 am Saturday until 2:00 pm.

The results are expected Saturday evening.

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