Czech Republic elects Petr Pavel president over Andrej Babis
The Czech Republic elected retired NATO general and political novice Petr Pavel as president on Saturday by nearly complete results, with voters decisively rejecting the rival candidacy of a populist billionaire and cementing the position of the country as a strong supporter of Ukraine.
Mr Pavel, a former chief of general staff of the Czech army and chairman of the NATO Military Committee, beat tycoon Andrej Babis, a pugnacious former prime minister who had sought to make his opponent in the second turn of Saturday’s vote a warmonger determined to drag Czech soldiers into the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr Babis’ tactic copied that of a former close ally, Hungary’s illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who won a ground victory last April after falsely claiming his main rival wanted to send Hungarian troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.
But that argument failed for Mr Babis in the Czech Republic, which has a much more diverse media than Hungary, where Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and its business allies have a tight grip on television and most other source of information.
With more than 99% of the votes counted, the tally gave Mr. Pavel a decisive victory: 58% against 42%. Two weeks ago, in the first round of voting, Mr. Pavel and Mr. Babis finished neck and neck.
The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent, Milos Zeman, who was barred from running due to term limits, has extended his limited powers in an attempt to tilt Czech foreign policy towards the Russia and China and loosen the moorings of the Central European country in the West.
Mr Zeman, who abandoned his previously pro-Kremlin views last year, did not upset the Czech government’s strong support for Ukraine, which has included sending tanks and other military equipment, but his reputation for heavy drinking and disruptive eccentricity often raised questions overseas. on the direction of the Czech Republic.
Taking a swipe at Mr Zeman’s ten-year term, Mr Pavel said on Saturday the election result was a “victory for the values we share – truth, respect, humility”.
“I will ensure that these values return to Prague Castle,” he added, referring to the seat of the Czech presidency.
Neither Mr. Pavel nor Mr. Babis shares Mr. Zeman’s eastern leanings, but their race represented a stark clash in political styles – between quiet pragmatism and exuberant populism.
Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno, said Mr Pavel’s victory “could be a moment of calm and perhaps a step towards improving the political culture in the country”.
“But,” Mr Eibl continued, “it will depend on how Babis handles his defeat – whether he continues to add fuel to the fire or acknowledges the victory” of his rival.
Speaking at his party’s headquarters in Prague on Saturday, Mr Babis conceded defeat but showed no signs of retiring from politics. He said the result showed he had strong support and could win the next parliamentary election in 2025.
Mr Pavel, a former paratrooper widely known as the “general”, campaigned on the slogan “Lead with experience and composure in difficult times”. Mr Babis, who was recently acquitted of European Union funding fraud charges, stoked fears of the war spreading to the Czech Republic, saying ‘the general does not believe in peace’ .
The clash between the two men made the vote – the first in a series of important elections this year in central and eastern Europe – a significant test of whether the once rising populist tide in Europe has peaked.
Despite the Czech president’s limited formal powers, the post carries great symbolic weight. This year’s election, with a first round of voting with eight candidates, attracted even more interest than usual, with more than 70% of voters casting their ballots in Saturday’s runoff, turnout the highest in a Czech election.
That populism continues to be a force was demonstrated last year by Mr Orban’s landslide victory in Hungary, but his fortunes elsewhere have been mixed. He suffered a big setback in the Czech Republic in October 2021 when Mr Babis lost his post as prime minister after a broad alliance of centrist and left-wing parties won parliamentary elections. Last year’s election in Slovenia dealt another blow as voters ousted Janez Jansa, a far-right admirer of Donald J. Trump and a close ally of Mr. Orban.
But protest populism could gain ground in this year’s elections in Slovakia, whose centrist government collapsed in December, paving the way for a possible return to power of Robert Fico, a belligerent former prime minister marred by corruption and other scandals.
The key test, however, will be an election this fall in Poland, the region’s most populous country, which has been governed since 2015 by the deeply conservative and nationalist Law and Justice party.
Barbora Petrova contributed reporting from Prague.