Prague, Czech Republic – Former NATO general Petr Pavel will become the fourth president of this Central European country after winning the hotly contested elections.
A few hours after the polls closed on Saturday, Pavel was declared the winner of the second round of voting. Preliminary results show that he won 58.3 percent in the two-legged race.
The impressive margin of his victory over former Prime Minister Andrej Babis suggests a surge in support for liberal democracy, after several years in which populists enjoyed an advantage.
It also raised 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 Miloš Zeman, an outspoken populist accused of fueling the polarization of the country’s political landscape. Zeman’s second and last mandate, according to constitutional limits, ends on March 8.
Speaking after his victory was announced, Pavel vowed to 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 mostly a ceremonial role. However, Zeman has spent the past decade testing the limits of his few powers, which include official appointments to the government, the constitutional court and the central bank.
Outspoken, he has also confused foreign policy by pushing for closer ties with Russia and China, in direct contrast to the government’s official position that membership of the European Union and NATO are key cornerstones.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s center-right government has not backed Pavel directly out of concern that anger over the cost-of-living crisis could hurt his campaign. However, the victory of the independents was warmly welcomed.
Marketa Pekarova Adamova, Speaker of the Parliament and leader of the Top09 coalition party, told Al Jazeera that the “fundamental values and goals of the elected president are in line” with those of the government.
Although a little wooden, the dignified, square-jawed ex-soldier was a strong contender. But Pavel’s margin of victory was also driven by votes cast against his opponent.
After Babis, 68, and Pavel qualified for the second round in the first round of voting on January 14, several of the six defeated candidates called on supporters to stand behind the former general.
Babis, a populist billionaire whose time as prime minister was marred by corruption scandals, has long accused the country’s liberal democratic forces of leading a coalition against Babis. A similar collaboration between the five center and center-right parties removed him from the prime minister’s chair in October 2021.
However, Babis’ ANO party remained the largest in parliament, thanks to central support that came mainly from older, rural and poorer groups. Because of this, many worried that Babiš’s combination of economic, political and media power – he owns several newspapers and radio stations – posed a danger to democracy.
In the shadow of Russia’s fierce war in Ukraine, his approach to foreign policy has also spooked many. Although no friend of Moscow or Beijing, he was a transactional politician who had no ideological foundations.
This allowed him to turn his weapon on the government’s support for Ukraine during the campaign, in an attempt to add to his core support the votes of a fragmented, anti-establishment electorate.
Branding Pavel as a “warmonger” who wanted to send the Czechs to the front line, Babiš repeated stories from the Kremlin while declaring himself “for peace”.
While this may have drawn additional support, it also appeared to help mobilize liberal voters, deepening their concern that, in the presidential chair, the billionaire would complicate relations with EU and NATO partners.
The turnout for the elections was around 70 percent, which is the highest since direct presidential elections were launched in 2013.
“Babiš’s campaign crossed all borders and helped mobilize his opponents,” said Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno. “He turned the elections into a referendum on himself and his political style. And he lost.”
Many also saw Pavel as more likely to uphold the president’s dignity than his rival, who is known for his emotional outbursts.
That was important to the Czechs, said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and former adviser to Vaclav Havel, the communist-era playwright and dissident who served as head of state for a decade after the birth of the Czech Republic in 1993.
Despite the performances of Zeman and his fiercely Eurosceptic predecessor Vaclav Klaus, Pehe said that the presidency is still a highly symbolic function that requires statesmanship.
A harsh critic of Zeman and Babiš, Pavel said he wants to see the end of populist politics.
“The main question is whether chaos and populism will continue to rule or whether we will return to following the rules,” he said after the first round of elections.
As for economic and social issues, the newly elected president maintained a conservative but liberal line. He emphasized that the fiscal balance is crucial, and one must not forget the warning about the vulnerable layers of society. He also supported the EU’s Green Deal and the Czech adoption of the euro.
“Pavel radiates leadership and there is hope that he can help calm the Czech political scene,” said Eibl.
‘Moderate political views’
Although the former general lacked political experience, he was well-versed in the formalities of negotiations and international relations, having served in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, as the Chief of the Czech Army and President of the NATO Military Committee in 2015-18.
During the election campaign, he urged the Czechs to trust his military experience while the war was raging in the east. At the same time, he was forced to defend himself over revelations that he had been trained as a spy during the communist era.
“Given his limited political experience and moderate political views, it is unlikely that Pavel would push the constitutional boundaries of the position as Miloš Zeman did,” predicted Andrius Tursa of risk consultancy Teneo International.
Instead, Pavel was expected to offer firm support to Fiala’s efforts to pull the country back into the Western mainstream, following the confusion spread by Zeman and Babis.
“Peter Pavel’s presidency should help the government implement its internal and foreign policy priorities,” said Adamova. “I am also sure that he will do his best to improve the image of our country abroad.”
A Russia-China hawk, Pavel fervently advocated Prague’s support for Kiev and supported its efforts to entrench the country more firmly in the EU and NATO.
“Czech diplomacy has rightly stopped maneuvering between East and West,” said Adamova. “We belong to the community of democratic countries and we must act and behave accordingly.”
As when Fiala replaced Babis as prime minister, the voter’s decision to replace Zeman with 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 anonymous.