Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis set the stage for a bitter showdown in a presidential election dominated by feuds over the country’s communist past by comparing his rival to Vladimir Putin after his surprise defeat in the first round of polls.
Final results after polls closed on Saturday showed Babiš finishing second behind General Petr Pavel, the former chief of staff and military chairman of NATO, leading them to a direct vote 27-28. January for the right to succeed Miloš Zeman as president of the Czech Republic.
In the eight-member field, Pavel won 35.4% of the vote, compared to 34.99% for Babis, with a recorded turnout of 68.23%. The only candidate, economist and academician Danuše Nerudova, who fought neck and neck with that pair in pre-election polls, took a distant third place with 13.9%.
Despite the narrow margin of defeat, the result left billionaire Babis facing an uphill battle to win over the additional voters needed to prevail in the second round, especially after Nerudova and two other losing candidates, Pavel Fischer and Marek Hilscher, immediately endorsed Pavel after which are defeats.
Reflecting the mounting odds against him, the 68-year-old launched a blistering attack on Pavel at a post-result press conference, targeting his rival’s previous Communist Party membership and participation in a military intelligence course before the 1989 Velvet Revolution heralded the end of communism in the former Czechoslovakia .
Painting Pavel as a “government candidate” and a former communist intelligence officer, Babis told reporters: “Do you know who else is an intelligence officer at the head of the state? Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin was dropped and deployed as a KGB agent in the 1980s in Berlin. That is what Mr. Pavel was ready for, to plant him in the rear of the enemy, to force people to cooperate there.
Babis, who owns two daily newspapers and the country’s largest commercial radio station, also claimed plans were underway to publish “compromising” material, including fake photos, and allegations linking him to the KGB.
His face was met with widespread derision, with critics pointing to Babiš’s previous ties to the communist-era secret police, the StB, for which he was an informant, according to documents certified as authentic by the constitutional court in his native Slovakia.
Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague, said Babis is trying to convince liberal-leaning supporters of the candidate who backed Pavel to abstain in the runoff.
“The three candidates who supported Pavel won 1.2 million votes between them and Babis is doing everything in his power to convince those voters that Pavel is just another ex-communist apparatchik and spy,” he said. “But unless something completely unexpected happens, Pavel will win.” To cross the 50% plus one threshold, he needs roughly 500,000 more votes when he has 1.2 million available.