Prague, Czech Republic – Former NATO General Petr Pavel will become the fourth president of this Central European nation after he won a bitterly fought election.
Hours after the polls closed on Saturday, Pavel was declared the winner of the second-round run-off vote. Preliminary results suggested he won 58.3 percent in the two-horse race.
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The impressive margin of his victory over former Prime Minister Andrej Babis suggested a surge of support for liberal democracy, following several years in which populists have enjoyed the upper hand.
It also stoked hopes among his supporters that, amid the war in Ukraine, the Czech Republic was now cementing itself in the Western mainstream.
Pavel, 61, will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken populist accused of encouraging the polarisation of the country’s political landscape. Zeman’s second and final term under constitutional limits ends on March 8.
Speaking after his victory was declared, Pavel pledged he would seek to heal the rifts in Czech society.
“I don’t see winning and losing voters in this country,” he said. “Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won. I am ready to return these values with my service not only to the Castle, but also to our republic.”
The Czech presidency is a largely ceremonial role. However, Zeman has spent the last decade testing the boundaries of its few powers, which include formal appointments to the government, constitutional court and central bank.
Outspoken, he has also confused foreign policy by pushing for closer links with Russia and China, in direct contradiction of the government’s official stance that European Union and NATO membership are key cornerstones.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s centre-right government did not directly endorse Pavel because of concerns that anger about the cost-of-living crisis could damage his campaign. However, the independent’s victory was warmly welcomed.
Marketa Pekarova Adamova, parliament speaker and leader of the Top09 coalition party, told Al Jazeera the president-elect’s “fundamental values and goals are in line” with those of the government.
Although a little wooden, the dignified, square-jawed former soldier was a strong candidate. But Pavel’s margin of victory was also driven by votes cast against his opponent.
After Babis, 68, and Pavel qualified for the run-off in a first-round vote on January 14, several of the six defeated candidates urged supporters to swing behind the ex-general.
Babis, a populist billionaire whose time as prime minister was plagued by corruption scandals, has long accused the country’s liberal democratic forces of running an “anti-Babis” coalition. Similar cooperation by a quintet of centrist and centre-right parties removed him from the prime minister’s chair in October 2021.
However, Babis’s ANO party remained the largest in parliament, thanks to core support largely drawn from older, rural and poorer cohorts. That left many worrying that Babis’ amalgamation of economic, political, and media power – he owns several newspapers and radio stations – represented a danger to democracy.
In the shadow of Russia’s vicious war in Ukraine, his approach to foreign policy also spooksed many. Although no friend of Moscow or Beijing, he has been a transactional politician who has lacked ideological foundations.
That allowed him during the campaign to turn his guns on the government’s support for Ukraine, in a bid to add the votes of a fragmented anti-establishment electorate to his core support.
Branding Pavel a “warmonger” who sought to send Czechs to the front line, Babis parroted Kremlin narratives as he proclaimed himself “pro-peace”.
While that may have coaxed some additional support, it also appeared to help mobilise liberal voters, deepening their concern that, in the president’s chair, the billionaire would complicate relations with EU and NATO partners.
Turnout for the election was about 70 percent, the highest since direct presidential elections were instigated in 2013.
“Babis’ campaign crossed all boundaries and helped mobilise his opponents,” said Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Brno’s Masaryk University. “He turned the election into a referendum on himself and his political style. And he lost.”
Walking the walk
Many also saw Pavel as more likely to uphold the dignity of the presidency than his rival, who is known for his emotional outbursts.
That was important to Czechs, suggested Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former adviser to Vaclav Havel, the playwright and communist-era dissident who served as head of state for a decade after the Czech Republic’s birth in 1993.
Despite the performances of Zeman and his virulently eurosceptic predecessor Vaclav Klaus, Pehe said the presidency is still a highly symbolic post demanding statesmanship.
A harsh critic of Zeman and Babis, Pavel said he wants to see an end to populist politics.
“The main issue at stake is whether chaos and populism will continue to rein or we return to observing rules,” he said following the first election round.
On economic and social issues the president-elect maintained a conservative but liberal line. He has stressed that fiscal balance was vital, while cautioning society’s vulnerable must not be forgotten. He also supported the EU’s green deal and Czech adoption of the euro.
“Pavel radiates leadership and there is hope that he can help to calm the Czech political landscape,” said Eibl.
‘Moderate political views’
While the former general lacked political experience, he was well versed in the formalities of negotiation and international relations, having served in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, as chief of the Czech military, and chairman of NATO’s Military Committee in 2015-18.
During the election campaign, he urged Czechs to put their trust in his military experience as the war in the east rages. At the same time, he was forced to defend himself amid revelations that he was trained as a spy during the communist era.
“Given his limited political experience and moderate political views, Pavel would be unlikely to push the constitutional boundaries of the post as … Milos Zeman did,” predicted Andrius Tursa at risk consultancy Teneo International.
Rather, Pavel was expected to offer firm support for Fiala’s efforts to pull the country back into the Western mainstream, following the confusion spread by Zeman and Babis.
“Petr Pavel’s presidency should help the government to implement its domestic and foreign policy priorities,” Adamova said. “I’m also sure he’ll do his very best to improve the image of our country abroad.”
A Russia and China hawk, Pavel has been an eager advocate of Prague’s backing for Kyiv and supported its efforts to anchor the country more firmly in the EU and NATO.
“Czech diplomacy has quite rightly stopped manoeuvring between East and West,” said Adamova. “We belong to the community of democratic countries and we must behave and act accordingly.”
As when Fiala replaced Babis as prime minister, the voters’ decision to swap the errant Zeman for the former general “will be welcomed by the country’s NATO and EU partners”, suggested a senior Western diplomat based in Prague, who asked to remain nameless.