Czech presidential vote starts with retired general, ex-PM leading the field

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) -A retired general who held a senior NATO military job headed into the Czech Republic's presidential election starting on Friday as a favourite ahead of his main rivals - a divisive former prime minister and an economics professor.

Presidents in the NATO and European Union member country do not hold daily executive powers but appoint prime ministers, central bankers and judges, and have a say in foreign affairs.

Polls opened at 2 p.m. (1300 GMT) and voting wraps up at 2 p.m. on Saturday, with results expected later that day.

Retired General Petr Pavel, 61, running as an independent, led two out of four final polls.

Former prime minister Andrej Babis, 68, a billionaire heading the biggest opposition party, topped the other two.

Babis has framed the vote as a protest against the centre-right government he accuses of doing too little in a cost-of-living crisis, and said he would put it under pressure if elected.

"I would try convince the government to finally start helping people, to sort out the price of electricity," Babis said after voting in a Prague suburb.

The government does not have its own candidate but has endorsed Pavel and economics professor Danuse Nerudova, 44, who was third in final polls, and one other candidate among the eight running.

No candidate is seen as winning over 50% in the first round, and the top two will meet in a run-off vote in two weeks.

Pollsters give Pavel an edge there, expecting him to gather more votes from other candidates than Babis. Betting agency Fortuna saw Pavel as favourite at 1-1.42 ahead of Babis at 1-3.50.

A former university chancellor, Nerudova would be the first woman in the job first held by Vaclav Havel after the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia and now occupied by Milos Zeman, who tried to build closer relations with China and Russia for most of his two five-year terms.

Zeman, a divisive political veteran who often stretched constitutional powers in spats with rivals, cannot seek a third term and has backed Babis.

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Pavel, voting in a village north of Prague, said the president's office had been degraded by divisiveness.

"(This election) is primarily about how to return that dignity and set a normal course of communication, trying to reach results through cooperation rather than confrontation," he said.

Zeman and Babis have had warm relations with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who has squared off with EU partners over the rule of law. Pavel has distanced himself from Orban, and said differences over values raised the question of whether to leave the central Europe's Visegrad Group, which also includes Poland and Slovakia.

Pavel and Nerudova have spoken in favour of adopting the euro, and the tradition of Havel's human rights-led foreign policy, and, unlike Zeman, support the country's warm relations with Taiwan.

While prime minister in 2017-2021, 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.

He has been the most lukewarm in supporting Ukraine among top candidates, calling for peace talks and speaking against more weapons supplies to Ukraine. But that policy is in the hands of the government, which has been among Kyiv's most steadfast supporters.

Pavel has both a Soviet-era and Western military education, has served in a peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and led NATO's military committee in 2015-2018 which advises the alliance's general secretary.

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(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Jason HovetEditing by Tomasz Janowski, William Maclean)