The Czech presidential election is to kick off Friday with a billionaire, a general and an academic leading a likely two-round vote seen as too close to call.
The winner will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken political veteran, following a period marked by the country’s 2022 EU presidency as the war in Ukraine raged.
The victor will face record inflation in the central European country of 10.5 million people, as well as bulging public finance deficits related to the war in Ukraine.
Unless a candidate wins more than 50% outright, which is considered unlikely, the two top contenders will go head-to-head in a second round on Jan. 27-28.
“If you asked me to place a bet (on the result), I wouldn’t,” Metropolitan University Prague political scientist Petr Just told AFP.
Populist ex-prime minister Andrej Babis, retired general Petr Pavel and university professor Danuse Nerudova are vying to become only the fourth president since the Czech Republic was founded in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Business tycoon and former prime minister Babis, 68, is the fifth-wealthiest person in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes magazine.
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 went on to be the chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO’s military committee.
Nerudova, the youngest frontrunner at 44, has a strong focus on social issues and is counting largely on the backing of younger voters.
Six wines, three shots
At the final campaign television debate late Thursday, Babis, Nerudova and Pavel vowed to forge a different path from the divisive Zeman if elected.
“Everybody knows me, I will be very active, and my advantage is I have the experience from all sectors in the government,” said Babis.
“That’s one of my priorities, to restore dignity to the presidential office,” Pavel told reporters.
Nerudova, wooing young voters as “the representative of the future,” said a woman would bring welcome change to the largely men’s world of Czech politics.
“There is a lot of aggression in our society, and I think that a woman would bring empathy and more political culture,” she added.
Polls suggest that both Pavel and Nerudova would beat Babis if they face him in the second round.
Five candidates — two senators, a far-right lawmaker, a former university rector and an entrepreneur — trail behind the top three favorites.
The Czech president’s role is largely ceremonial, but the head of state names the government, picks the governor of the central bank and constitutional judges, and serves as top commander of the armed forces.
But Zeman, a controversial politician who once confessed to a daily diet of six glasses of wine and three shots of spirits, repeatedly exploited loopholes in the constitution to increase his influence.
Polling stations open for the first round at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT) and close at 10 p.m. They then reopen from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.
The first-round results are expected Saturday evening.