Petr Pavel, a former general, has won the second round of Czech presidential elections.
The bearded 61-year-old Pavel, who served as a top-tier NATO commander and participated in a critical peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, was elected Czech president.
Petr Pavel defeated his opponent in the second round, oligarch and former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who had been a dominating but divisive presence in Czech politics for a decade.
According to the Czech Statistics Office, Pavel earned 58.3% of the vote, while Babis got 41.7%.
Pavel’s supporters celebrated his election as a triumph for liberal democracy over oligarchic populism, which they saw Babi as representing.
Pavel, a social liberal, ran as an independent and received the support of the center-right government.
Petr Pavel described his triumph as one for “truth, integrity, respect, and humility.” Following an extremely divisive election campaign, he swore to promote national unity. “We disagree on many issues, but that doesn’t make us enemies,” Pavel remarked.
In a highly symbolic moment, Pavel received the congratulations of Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Caputova, who has also spoken out against populism. She cited the values of Vaclav Havel, the former dissident who became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president.
The Czech president chooses prime minister and central bank head
Czech presidents have little power but choose prime ministers and central bank heads. The president has a say in foreign policy, is an influential opinion maker, and can pressure the administration on policies.
As a result, Pavel will hold power over foreign policy and government opinion and the authority to designate prime ministers, constitutional judges, and central bankers.
Pavel backed continued support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s war
Babis had campaigned on the fear of the Ukraine war spreading, attempting to mediate talks with Russia while implying Pavel could pull the Czechs into a war, a claim Pavel denied.
The election result was a humiliation for Babis, a billionaire tycoon accused of running a cynical, smoldering campaign after depicting Pavel as a warmonger for his backing of military aid to Ukraine.
Opinions on the Russian-Ukrainian War
Petr Pavel argues for additional military assistance to Ukraine. Under certain conditions, the former general claimed he would support creating a no-fly zone or sending NATO soldiers to Ukraine to safeguard humanitarian routes.
Andrej Babis has been critical of Fiala’s government and his backing of Ukraine since the start of the war. Babis stated that the Czech Republic should not send weapons to Ukraine and aid refugees.
Pavel, a supporter of the center-right administration, has accused Babis of instilling terror among the public.
Departing president Zeman pushed for closer ties with China and Russia
Pavel will assume office in March, succeeding departing Prime Minister Milos Zeman, a controversial figure throughout his two years in power over the last decade who had endorsed Babis as his successor.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Zeman had pushed for deeper ties with China and Moscow, and Pavel’s election marked a significant reversal.
From communist to NATO military committee chairman
Pavel, a career soldier who entered the army during the Communist era, was awarded a French military cross for bravery during peacekeeping operations in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
He then climbed to lead the Czech general staff. He served three years as chairman of NATO’s military committee until retiring in 2018.
Like his rich competitor Babis, Petr Pavel joined the Communist Party. He quickly advanced through the army levels, studying to become a regime intelligence operative.
Critics accuse him of being a communist, but Pavel has defended himself, stating that party membership was “normal” in his family and was a “mistake.”
During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Pavel trained as an elite paratrooper while holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel at the time.
He later attended military training institutes in the United Kingdom, earning a master’s degree from King’s College London.
After his country joined NATO in 1999, Pavel quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the alliance’s senior military leader in 2015. He retired in 2018 with a chest full of decorations.