Military support for Ukraine and relations with Russia and China are among the key issues as Czech voters prepare to choose a new president Friday, with three candidates neck-and-neck in the polls.
Among them is Andrej Babiš, the billionaire former prime minister who received a boost after he was acquitted of fraud Monday.
Babiš was charged in 2022 for taking his “Stork Nest” farm out of his giant Agrofert holding company, in order to make it eligible for a $2 million European Union subsidy for small companies.
Prague Municipal Court Judge Jan Sott said it had not been proven that his actions constituted a crime. State prosecutors are considering an appeal.
The 68-year-old Babiš described the prosecution as a “political process.”
“I think it is good news for the whole Czech Republic, for all citizens of the Czech Republic, that we live in the rule of law,” he told reporters following the verdict Monday.
Babiš, who served as prime minister from 2017 to 2021, is seen as a populist and a political ally of the outgoing president, Miloš Zeman. Babiš has criticized government and European Union policies on issues like migration and support for Ukraine. That has won him support – but also energized his critics.
Babiš’ main rivals include Petr Pavel, a retired Czech general, and former chairman of the NATO Military Committee. His campaign slogan is, “Bring order and calm.’”
The third leading candidate is Danuše Nerudová, a former economist and university rector who promises a progressive, pro-European presidency. She would become her country’s first female president if elected.
“Both Petr Pavel and Danuše Nerudová are highly committed to the Czech Republic as a liberal democracy and also to its role in the liberal order more widely,” said Benjamin Tallis, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“That’s really the clear choice facing Czechs. Do they seize the chance to go back towards the liberal democratic mainstream, or is it a time that they would prefer to actually go back to the recent times of the Zeman-Babiš period and more towards this populist nationalist and authoritarian politics?” Tallis told VOA.
The president does not have executive powers; however, analysts say a Babiš victory could make life difficult for the current government under Prime Minister Petr Fiala, which has taken a strongly pro-Ukrainian stance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In his (Babiš’) view it’s too much support, too much help to Ukraine and also to Ukrainian refugees,” said Lubomír Kopeček, a professor of political science at Masaryk University. “But I don’t think that Babiš would be somebody like Zeman in the past – a pro-Russian and pro-Chinese president. Because his business interests are connected to western and central Europe.”
The Czech Republic and Slovakia have just marked the 30-year anniversary of the so-called ‘velvet divorce’ – the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia following the fall of communism. For some voters, the historical resonance is significant, says Tallis.
“Lessons the Czech Republic has learned from history about how to stand up to autocracy, things about what is worthwhile about democracy, about how Ukrainians have revived memories of why freedoms and rights are worth fighting and dying for. What is actually liberty all about and where is the hope of that progressive future?” Tallis told VOA.
If no candidate secures an outright majority in Friday’s election, the top two go through to a second round two weeks later.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, recent surveys indicate the three candidates each have between 20 and 30 percent of the vote, with six other contenders splitting the remaining votes.
Some of the information in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.