By Talha Ozturk
BELGRADE, Serbia (AA) - Voters in the Czech Republic are set to start going to the ballot boxes on Friday to choose among eight candidates and three favorites to run the Central European country for the next five years.
Usually held over two days, elections in the country of over 10.5 million people are set to begin at 2 p.m. local time (1300GMT) until 10 p.m. on Friday, followed by 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Incumbent president Milos Zeman, who has faced accusations of overstepping his constitutional boundaries a few times, is not eligible to run due to the two-term limit, and the vote will be direct.
If no candidate wins a majority of the votes in this first round, the race will narrow to the top two in a runoff on Jan. 27-28.
Opinion polls suggest that it will take a second round to choose the country's next leader in what appears to be a neck-and-neck race between former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, retired Gen. Petr Pavel, and economist and academic Danuse Nerudova.
While the president's role is mainly ceremonial, it also holds the role of commander-in-chief of the military.
Zeman has been criticized for attempts to improve relations with China and Russia, as well as for making anti-refugee and anti-Muslim remarks.
Meanwhile, all three leading candidates have controversial issues relating to their past that they have taken flak over.
The 68-year-old Babis has faced trial over fraud allegations connected to a €2 million (about $2.17 million) EU subsidy in September last year. He was acquitted from the lawsuit just four days ago.
Also criticized for past anti-immigration and anti-EU comments, the former premier is running for the populist Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO 2011) party.
Retired soldier Pavel, meanwhile, is an independent candidate, but was a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended Soviet rule there.
Pavel, 61, launched his campaign with the slogan, "Let's bring order and peace back to the Czech Republic."
The only woman vying for the presidency, Nerudova is one of three candidates supported by Spolu, a center-right political alliance formed in a coalition with the Pirates and Mayors alliance.
However, the 44-year-old was accused of plagiarism and fast-tracking her degrees.
Her campaign focused on better education, equal rights, and pension reforms.
According to local pollster Median, Pavel is expected to get 29.5% of the vote, while Babis is projected to win about 26.5% and Nerudova 21-25%.
Since none of the candidates are likely to win at least half of the vote, a second-round runoff between Babis and Pavel seems the most probable outcome.
The first preliminary results are expected on Saturday evening.