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Barbs and beards from Babiš as crunch Czech election test looms | Czech Republic

TFormer Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš faces a fateful reckoning this weekend when voters hand down their verdict in a presidential election in which polls show he could lose big.

The militant Babiš, who along with his ally, outgoing President Milos Zeman, has dominated the Central European country’s politics for the past decade, is up against the titular military figure Petr Pavel, a retired general and former NATO deputy commander. – in the second round, which many observers consider decisive for the future of Czech democracy.

Polling stations open on Friday and close on Saturday.

Pavel, 61, a former army chief of staff, assumed the pose of a statesman, in keeping with his vow to restore the dignity of a political office that many Czechs say has been tarnished by Zeman’s provocative antics. Zeman once joked with Vladimir Putin that he should “eliminate” journalists and said during a state visit to China that he came there to learn “how to stabilize society.”

Pavel’s supporters created a contrast by appealing to the spirit of the late Václav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Opinion polls show that Paul’s message is resonating. Two Czech sociological agencies, Median and Stem, lead Pavel by about 58% to 42%. This is a much larger gap than in the first round two weeks ago, when Babiš finished just behind Pavel on a wider field, although neither candidate won the necessary majority to avoid a second round.

Pavel also created an impression of popular support by organizing mass rallies in Brno and Ostrava, the two largest Czech cities outside the capital Prague.

Babiš responded with uncompromising attacks, portraying Pavel as a warmonger seeking to draw the Czech Republic into the conflict on the side of Ukraine in its fight against Russia — a tactic condemned by critics as disinformation — while portraying himself as the victim of death threats and slander.

The day after his defeat in the first round, Babiš, a billionaire tycoon who owns a diversified business empire, took aim at Pavel’s military reputation by unveiling a billboard with the slogan: “I will not drag the Czech Republic into war: I am a diplomat, not soldier”.

Czech presidential candidate Petr Pavel takes part in the final radio debate before the presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, January 13.
Czech presidential candidate Petr Pavel takes part in the final radio debate before the presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, January 13. Photograph: David W. Czerny/Reuters

This was followed by an anonymous SMS message purporting to be from Pavel’s campaign, in which voters thanked for their support in the first round of voting and instructed them to “appear at the nearest branch of the military, where you will receive the necessary weapons for mobilization in Ukraine.” .

The texts sparked a police investigation as Pavel claimed dirty tricks and pointed the finger at Babiš’s supporters. Pavel also complained about videos circulating on social media that appeared to have been carefully edited to falsely portray him as calling for war against Russia.

There is no evidence of Babis’ direct involvement in any of the episodes. However, the candidate expanded on the topic in headline fashion in a Sunday night debate on state-funded Czech television, which he initially vowed to boycott before changing his mind late, prompted by plummeting poll numbers.

Babish arrived noticeably hairier than usual. He allowed his previously close-cropped and barely visible goatee to grow back in what may have been an attempt to compete with the luxuriant facial hair of his Habsburg-style opponent.

He then sparked outrage for apparently violating NATO’s article 5 provisions on collective security by answering “absolutely no” to the question of whether he would send Czech troops to Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion.

Following Poland’s condemnation, Babiš posted a clarification tweet, insisting on respect for NATO commitments. But the diplomatic damage was done – and Pavel continued his own tweet in Polish, promising a speedy visit to Poland if elected.

Andrei Babiš is sitting in a restaurant after the presidential election campaign in Brno.
Andrei Babiš is sitting in a restaurant after the presidential election campaign in Brno. Photo: Martin Divishek/EPA

Babiš announced on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the public campaign after receiving a death threat he reported to police, days after reporting that his wife had been shot in a pole, and demanded an end to “hatred and aggression” .

Pavel responded sharply, inviting Babiš on Twitter to “calm things down” and stating that the tense atmosphere was “a result of your campaign”.

Ian Hartl, founder of the Stem research group, called Babis’ tactics “improvisational” to interest belated supporters by opening up radical divisions, but said they were unlikely to work. “Czech public opinion is not very radical and does not show the kind of radicalization that Babiš is trying to bring into the election race,” he said. “I doubt that he will be able to attract many new voters by doing this.”

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