A retired NATO general leads a billionaire ex-premier going into the Czech presidential run-off that starts Friday, following an election campaign that saw Russia's war in Ukraine take centre stage.
Wealthy entrepreneur and former prime minister Andrej Babis has sought to woo voters nervous of a spillover from the conflict by implying his opponent -- as a military man -- could drag the Czech Republic into the war.
The populist lawmaker also said he would not send troops to Poland or the Baltics to help them under NATO's collective defence -- comments he later walked back after raising eyebrows abroad.
Babis looks set to lose out to Petr Pavel, according to the latest opinion polls, after the former NATO general won over supporters of several first-round candidates.
"Turnout will be key. The question is whether Babis will manage to demobilise a part of Pavel's voters," said Otto Eibl, an analyst at Masaryk University.
"It doesn't seem likely really because Babis polarises society and many people will want to stop him," he told AFP.
The winner of the run-off, which ends Saturday, will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken and divisive politician who nursed close ties with Moscow before making a U-turn when Russia invaded Ukraine.
The new head of state will face record inflation in the central European EU and NATO member of 10.5 million people, as well as bulging public finance deficits related to the war in Ukraine.
While the role is largely ceremonial, the president names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges, and serves as top commander of the armed forces.
- Tycoon versus paratrooper -
Pavel won the first round by a whisker but has since gained a considerable lead, according to the final opinion polls published on Sunday and Monday.
The career military man scored between 58 and 59 percent in the three polls published by CNN Prima News, the Ipsos agency and the Median agency.
Slovak-born Babis -- a food, chemicals and media tycoon -- trailed with 41 to 42 percent.
The 68-year-old businessman is the fifth wealthiest person in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes magazine.
He served as prime minister from 2017 until 2021, constantly battling questions about his dual role as politician and entrepreneur.
Pavel, 61, is a former paratrooper who was decorated as a hero of the Serbo-Croatian war during which he helped free French troops from a war zone.
He went on to become the chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO's military committee.
Both Pavel and Babis were members of the Communist Party in the 1980s when Czechoslovakia was ruled by Moscow-steered communists.
Pavel won the endorsement of several parties in the governing centre-right coalition of Prime Minister Petr Fiala, while Babis has secured backing from long-time ally Zeman.
- 'Difficult to figure out' -
Since round one earlier this month, the election has been dominated by the war in Ukraine.
Babis posted billboards saying he would not draw the country into conflict, insisting that "I'm a diplomat, not a soldier."
Asked in a TV debate on Sunday whether he would send troops if Poland or the Baltics were attacked, Babis said: "No, certainly not."
He later tweeted that his statement had been misconstrued, but the damage had been done, with all four countries angry.
Pavel mused that Babis "probably lives in a different world" and also slammed as nonsense his proposal to organise a peace summit with Russia in Prague.
Political commentators point out that Babis has a tendency to make remarks for political reasons.
"You can't really trust Andrej Babis before an election because he changes his views," Eibl said.
"Rhetorically, he is difficult to figure out."
Independent political analyst Jan Kubacek said he believed the election would not bring a change in foreign policy, no matter the victor.
"The Czech Republic will stay pro-Western, it will retain its strategic relationship to the EU and NATO, it will stay on Ukraine's side," he told AFP.
© Agence France-Presse
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