Czech PM Babis supports incumbent Zeman in presidential election

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis backed incumbent Milos Zeman in the country’s presidential election, which starts with a first round on Friday and Saturday.

The billionaire businessman said he would vote for Zeman, 73, for his honesty, political experience and defense of national interests, despite what he described as Zeman’s “polarising” impact on Czech society.

The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial but has an important role in picking who should form a government. Babis’s anti-establishment ANO party won more than twice as many seats as any other group in an October vote but still fell far short of a majority.

The endorsement of Zeman by Babis was expected, as Zeman has backed Babis to form a government. So far all eight other parliamentary factions have refused to back an ANO government.

“I see him as a strong personality which is polarising society, but mainly as someone who does not steal, who has results, who keeps his word... and unlike other politicians, he does not live from politics, he lives for politics,” Babis told a news conference.

“He is a man who fights for our national interests, he is not afraid to clearly state his opinion on Brussels, (migration) quotas, he fights for the interests of our entrepreneurs.”

Babis stressed that any government he leads would hold a foreign policy course based on the country’s EU and NATO membership. Zeman, a former center-left prime minister who has drifted towards anti-immigration far-right parties, has devoted effort to developing relations with Russia and China.

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Zeman leads opinion polls against a crowded field of challengers, but could face a tougher threat from a single opponent in a run-off in two weeks if he does not win outright in the first round. Final polls showed the most serious challenger was non-partisan academic Jiri Drahos.

Zeman’s first five-year term ends on March 7, giving time for more talks before then on forming a government, regardless of who wins the election. If the talks stretch out beyond then, Babis may have a harder time with some of Zeman’s opponents.

The main reason why most other parties refuse to work with Babis is that he faces investigation over alleged fraud when receiving a European Union subsidy a decade ago. He denies any wrongdoing.

He is facing a confidence vote for his minority government next week with almost no chance of winning. Zeman has promised to give Babis a second chance to form a government if the first attempt fails.

The Czech lower house on Wednesday postponed the confidence vote until Jan. 16 or later as lawmakers tussled over the fraud allegations and whether to lift his parliamentary immunity to allow prosecution.

Reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Peter Graff