Billionaire ex-prime minister and Czech presidential candidate Andrej Babiš caused a stir by saying in a live debate on Sunday night he would refuse to send troops to defend NATO allies Poland and the Baltics in case they were attacked.
“I want peace, I don’t want war. And in no case would I send our children and the children of our women to war,” he said on Czech state television, sparking ire among neighbours and NATO allies alike.
Babiš later backtracked on Sunday’s comments, saying “his statement was distorted” and that he would respect NATO’s mutual defence commitments.
“I just didn’t want even to imagine World War III could happen,” he said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Babiš’s opponent, retired general and former NATO official Petr Pavel, is leading by a nearly 18-point margin ahead of the Czech presidential election run-off vote next weekend, according to the final Ipsos agency poll published on Monday.
“Mr Babiš probably lives in another world. We became members of NATO to ensure peace, because it is the strongest defense organisation. Whenever someone is attacked, others come to his aid,” Pavel said in reaction to his competitor’s claim.
Pavel, an independent backed by the centre-right government, has projected a clear pro-Western policy stance and support for Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression.
Babiš has tried to label Pavel as a threat to peace and presented himself over the past week since the first election round as a force against war.
His campaign posters declare, “I will not drag Czechia into a war” and “I am a diplomat. Not a soldier”.
Pavel has dismissed the suggestions as nonsense.
Run-off mired by propaganda and disinformation?
Czech media reported widespread anti-Pavel messaging on disinformation websites and chain emails.
Babiš, who heads the largest opposition political party, won the backing of retiring President Miloš Zeman as well as figures from the extreme fringes of the political scene, including the pro-Russian former ruling Communist Party.
Zeman had favoured closer ties with China and Russia until Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
Czech presidents do not wield daily powers, but they appoint prime ministers, central bank governors, and have a limited role in foreign policy. They also shape public debate and can pressure governments on policies.
Pavel was polling at 58.8% to 41.2% for Babiš in the survey conducted on 20-22 January. The two candidates meet in the second round of the election on 27-28 January.
The Ipsos poll confirmed a message in two surveys over the weekend where Pavel also led by a wide margin.
Pavel, 61, was a soldier since the communist era but rose in the ranks after the 1989 democratic “Velvet Revolution”.
He served in special forces and military diplomacy roles and led the army general staff between 2012-2015.
In the subsequent three years, he headed NATO’s military committee of national army chiefs, the principal military advisory body to the alliance’s secretary-general.
Monday was the deadline for polling ahead of a blackout period. One more poll was expected on Monday afternoon, and analysts believe Babiš’s comments will make a further dent in his presidential bid.