PRAGUE (AP) — Populist billionaire Andrej Babis and his main challenger retired army Gen. Petr Pavel were running neck and neck in the first round of the Czech presidential election, according to nearly complete results on Saturday.
Babis, a former prime minister, was narrowly leading with 35.7% of the vote with ballots from 95% of polling stations counted, the Czech Statistics Office said.
Pavel was second with 34.7 %. Another challenger, economist Danuse Nerudova, was third with 13.9%.
Babis and Pavel will face each other in a runoff in two weeks if the results hold, since no candidate achieved a majority of votes in the first round.
Czechs are picking a successor to Milos Zeman in the largely ceremonial post, with Babis leading a field of eight candidates after two day of voting that finished Saturday.
Babis was acquitted this week in a fraud trial, which boosted his chances of winning in the first round.
A court in Prague acquitted Babis, 68, on Monday of fraud charges in a $2 million case involving European Union subsidies. The prosecution can still appeal. Babis had pleaded not guilty and repeatedly said the charges against him were politically motivated.
Despite a number of scandals, his popular support remains strong, particularly among older voters.
Polls predicted that Pavel, 61, a former chairman of NATO’s military committee; and former university rector Nerudova, 44, would be Babis' main opponents.
Polls indicate that none of the remaining candidates is likely to make the runoff.
Babis, whose centrist ANO (YES) movement ended up in opposition after losing the 2021 general election, is supported by Zeman, with whom he shares euroskeptic views and the habit of using anti-migrant rhetoric.
Zeman was the first president elected by popular vote. His second and final five-year term expires in March.
Lawmakers elected the previous two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.
The websites of the Statistics Office and the one it uses to release election results were under DDoS cyber attacks from a pro-Russia group, the Avast antivirus company said. The results were still available.
Voting in the Czech presidential election at the Czech Embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, had to be interrupted for an hour because of a Russian missile attack earlier on Saturday, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.