By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Retired general Petr Pavel scored a narrow win over billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis in the first round of the Czech presidential election on Saturday, securing a solid base for a runoff in two weeks, nearly complete results showed.
The post does not carry executive authority but has significant powers in appointing prime ministers, central bank chiefs and nominating judges for the constitutional court. Presidents also have a limited say in foreign affairs and are chief army commanders.
Results from 99.99% of the voting districts showed Pavel won with 35.39%, ahead of Babis with 35.00%.
** Click here for interactive graphic:
Czech presidential election first round results https://www.reuters.com/graphics/CZECH-ELECTION/byvrlrmonve/chart.png
Both Pavel, a former general staff chief and NATO military committee chairman, and combative opposition leader Babis who was prime minister in 2017-2021, would likely be more pro-Western than the retiring incumbent Milos Zeman, who promoted tighter ties with China and, until the invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia.
Pavel, 61, is strongly pro-Western and supports further military aid for Ukraine as well as adoption of the euro.
Babis, who built a chemicals, farming and media empire now registered in trust funds, would be a smaller change as he shares Zeman's warm relations with Hungary's Viktor Orban, who has been at odds with European Union partners over the rule of law.
Babis, 68, spoke in the past against more Czech military aid for Ukraine, and said on Saturday he would try to organise a peace summit. The current centre-right government, which decides on those policies, is among Kyiv's staunchest supporters in the West.
TOUGH SECOND ROUND FOR BABIS
Pavel took aim at Babis, calling him populist and a threat.
"The danger is that we would start sliding not only toward populism but also start veering off the course we followed the past 30 years, clearly pro-democratic, pro-Western, pro-European," he said after partial results were known.
Pollsters have given Pavel an edge over Babis in a second round as he is likely to attract more of the people voting for the six other candidates who lost in the first round.
In third place was economics professor Danuse Nerudova, with 13.9%. She conceded defeat and congratulated Pavel, saying she would meet him to offer support.
"There is still a great evil here, and it is called Andrej Babis," she told supporters and reporters.
Pavel has been endorsed by the centre-right Cabinet, while Babis, whose ANO party is the biggest in parliament, has framed the vote as a show of dissatisfaction with the government's response to high inflation and energy prices.
Running with Zeman's backing, Babis has pledged to put pressure on the Cabinet to provide more aid to households.
"Pavel would only execute the will of the government," Babis said after the vote. "This asocial government wants to raise our taxes."
For some voters, there has been frustration that the first round winners were members of the Communist Party prior to the end of its rule in 1989.
Babis worked in foreign trade and was registered as a communist-era secret police informant, which he denies. Pavel started his military career in the 1980s, and went through military intelligence training.
Babis attacked Pavel over the training on Saturday, saying the only communist-era intelligence officer in power in Europe was Russia's Vladimir Putin.
While prime minister, Babis was found in conflict of interest by the European Commission due to subsidies paid to his Agrofert business empire, which is in a trust. He was cleared this week in an EU subsidy fraud case.
** Click here for interactive graphic:
Czech presidential election run-off scenarios https://www.reuters.com/graphics/CZECH-ELECTION/movakjkqdva/chart.png
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; additional reporting by Kuba Stezycki and Jiri Skacel; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Christina Fincher and Mark Potter)