Former General Petr Pavel has opened up a strong lead over billionaire populist Andrej Babis ahead of the run-off for the Czech presidency on January 27-28, three opinion polls showed. Pavel narrowly won the first round with 35.4% against Babis on 35% on January 13-14.
Pavel, with 57.7 per cent of the vote, would beat the ANO chairman and former premier with 42.4% in the second round, according to a poll conducted by the STEM agency for CNN Prima News.
According to an Ipsos poll, 58.8 percent of people would have voted for Pavel, while Babiš would have won 41.2 per cent of the vote.
A third poll by Data Collect and Kantar CZ for Czech Television published on Saturday showed 46 per cent of people would definitely vote for Pavel and 7 per cent would rather vote for him. Twenty-nine percent of voters would definitely vote for his opponent Babiš and 9 per cent would rather vote for him.
The retired army chief of staff and former chairman of Nato Military Command has also been backed by four of the seven eliminated presidential candidates, including Danuse Nerudova, Pavel Fischer, Marek Hilšer, and Josef Stredula. None of the other candidates have backed Babis.
The surge in support for the former general has also been demonstrated by some impressive crowds at his appearances around the country.
Pavel has also been boosted by a huge gaffe by Babis in a debate on Czech TV on January 22. When asked by the presenter several times whether he would send Czech troops to defend Poland or the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion, Babis insisted that he would not.
"I want peace, I don't want war. There is no way I would send our children and our women's children to war," he said.
His comments sparked a storm of criticism. “We are a member of Nato, which is based on the principle of one for all, all for one. The government knows it, the majority of society that supports membership in the alliance knows it,” Minister of Defence Jana Cernochova said.
Polish and Baltic media responded with astonishment to Babis’s comments. His marketing team later tweeted a correction.
Pavel dismissed Babis's attempt to retract his comments: "With his statement that he would certainly not send our soldiers to Poland or the Baltics if they were attacked, Babiš ignored our alliance commitments and significantly threatened our credibility and security. An apology does not change anything," Pavel said.
The opposition leader has been trying to paint himself as the “peace” candidate and to exploit the cost of living crisis – partly caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia. Babis’ current billboard campaign says, "The general does not believe in peace. Vote for peace. Vote Babiš".
He accuses the former general of being a warmonger, a message that has been reinforced by a Russian disinformation campaign. He has also claimed that, were he to be elected president, he would convene an international summit to negotiate peace, a suggestion that has been ridiculed by Pavel’s campaign and many commentators.
Babis’ huge blunder in the TV debate could also damage the former premier’s efforts to depict himself as the experienced candidate, who is on first name terms with world leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, who he flew to visit ahead of the first round of the election.
In the tetchy CT24 debate, Babis also tried to tar Pavel with being the government’s candidate, depicted himself as on the side of ordinary citizens, and warned of “a return of totalitarianism” if the general were elected president.
“If I will be the president I will certainly try to stop this government in its anti-social policy of raising taxes, the Green Deal, and other things, because this government is anti-social and does not help,” Babis said.
In reality, Pavel is standing as an independent after collecting 81,000 signatures from citizens to secure his nomination. Though endorsed by the governing centre-right coalition, he has taken pains to criticise it for failing to do enough to help ordinary people cope with the cost of living crisis.
Babis claimed he was the real independent, though he later contradicted himself by saying that he was standing as the candidate of ANO, his personal party vehicle, which is the largest party in the parliament. Babis is also being supported by the Communist party. The far-right SPD has not officially recommended supporting Babiš, however it urged its voters not to vote for Pavel.
The billionaire is also a very unusual anti-elite candidate. Babis set up the Agrofert food, agriculture and chemical conglomerate after the collapse of communism using an unclear source of funds, and he benefited from his links with politicians in the 1990s privatisation era, during which a new class of oligarchic businessmen emerged in Czechia.
Babis “is a candidate of the Castle” [of outgoing president Milos Zeman], representing the 1990s worship of “success as the elementary criterion, regardless of the ways it was achieved,” Pavel said in the debate.
The two candidates’ communist pasts also came under scrutiny in the TV debate. Unlike the country’s three previous presidents, both Pavel and Babis were Communist party members until 1989 and Babis is on record as an informer for the StB secret police.
Babis once again denied the evidence of his own collaboration. He argued about his past for several minutes with moderator Martin Řezníček, who quoted his own words from the Jan Kraus TV chat show in 2011, where Babiš admitted collaboration but said there was a difference between the "good StB" and the "bad StB".
Babis has accused Pavel of training as a spy and informing on fellow officers who criticised the 1968 Russian invasion. In the debate, Pavel denied the claims, insisting the training course – which he only completed after 1989 – had a wider potential application, and he once again apologised for joining the party.
Up until virtually the last minute Babis had said he would boycott the Czech TV debate because of the public broadcaster’s alleged bias against him. He said he had changed his mind after attending a religious service and had decided to “forgive” Czech Television.
He said all the media were supporting Pavel against him, to which the general responded “except yours”, with reference to the billionaire’s media empire.
As Babis set up ANO in 2011, Agrofert acquired Mafra, now the second-largest publishing house in the country, and several popular radio stations, prompting domestic and international media associations to warn against the “oligarchisation of Czech media”.