The Czech presidential election is to kick off on Friday with a billionaire, a general and an academic leading a likely two-round vote seen as too close to call. The winner will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken political veteran, following a period marked by the country’s 2022 EU presidency as the war in Ukraine raged. The victor will face record inflation in the central European country of 10.5 million people, as well as bulging public finance deficits related to the war in Ukraine. Unless a candidate wins more than 50 percent outright, which is considered unlikely, the two top contenders will go head-to-head in a second round on January 27-28. “If you asked me to place a bet (on the result), I wouldn’t,” Metropolitan University Prague political scientist Petr Just told AFP. Populist ex-prime minister Andrej Babis, retired general Petr Pavel and university professor Danuse Nerudova are vying to become only the fourth president since the Czech Republic was founded in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Business tycoon and former prime minister Babis, 68, is the fifth wealthiest person in the Czech Republic, according to Forbes magazine. Pavel, 61, is a former paratrooper who was decorated as a hero of the Serbo-Croatian war during which he helped to free French troops from a war zone. He went on to be the chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO’s military committee. Nerudova, the youngest frontrunner at 44, has a strong focus on social issues and is counting largely on the backing of younger voters.