A billionaire, a general and an academic are favourites going into the first round of the Czech presidential election that begins Friday and concludes on Saturday and is seen by observers as too close to call.
The winner will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken political veteran known for enjoying a drink, following a period marked by the country’s 2022 EU presidency as the war in Ukraine raged.
The victor will face record inflation and bulging public finance deficits because of the war in Ukraine.
Unless a candidate 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.
“If you asked me to place a bet (on the result), I wouldn’t,” Metropolitan University Prague analyst 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 Soviet Union’s fall.
Business tycoon and former prime minister Babis, 68, is the fifth wealthiest person in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes magazine.
General 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 general staff and chair of NATO’s military committee.
Nerudova, the youngest frontrunner at 44 and a former academic, has a strong focus on social issues and is counting largely on the backing of younger voters.
Polls suggest that both Pavel and Nerudova would beat Babis if they faced him in the second round.
The other five candidates — two senators, a far-right lawmaker, a former university rector and an entrepreneur — are trailing behind the top three.
The Czech president’s role is largely ceremonial, but the head of state names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges and serves as top commander of the armed forces.
Incumbent Zeman, a hard-drinking and controversial politician who once confessed to a daily diet of six glasses of wine and three shots of spirits, has wielded more influence than his predecessors.
Polling stations open for the first round at 2:00 pm Friday (1300 GMT) and close at 10:00 pm, then reopen at 8:00 am Saturday until 2:00 pm.
The results are expected Saturday evening.