PRAGUE (AP) — Petr Pavel, a retired army general, decisively defeated populist billionaire Andrej Babis in a runoff vote Saturday to become the Czech Republic's new president.
Pavel, 61, will succeed controversy-courting Milos Zeman in the largely ceremonial but prestigious post. His election is expected to cement the country’s Western orientation following Zeman's decade in office.
With all the ballots counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Pavel had 58.3% of the vote compared with 42.7% for Babis. Turnout was just over 70%, a record high for a presidential vote.
“We can have different views of a number of issues, but that doesn’t mean we’re enemies,” Pavel said in a message to voters who cast ballots for Babis after what was considered a nasty presidential campaign period. “We have to learn how to communicate with each other.”
Babis conceded defeat and congratulated Pavel on his victory. He called on his supporters “to accept that I’ve lost and accept we have a new president.”
Pavel, who ran as an independent, is a former chairman of NATO’s military committee, the alliance’s highest military body. He fully endorsed the Czech Republic's military and humanitarian support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia's invasion and stresses the importance of the country's membership in the European Union and NATO.
“Foreign policy is his strong point,” Petr Just, an analyst from the Metropolitan University Prague, said. Just noted that Pavel's NATO experience and views would “boost” the country's Western leanings.
The president picks the prime minister after a general election, one of the office’s key responsibilities, and appoints members of the central bank. The office-holder also selects Constitutional Court judges with the approval of Parliament’s upper house.
Otherwise, the president has little executive power since Czechia is run by a government chosen and led by the prime minister.
President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia, who beat established politicians to win her country's 2019 presidential election, joined Pavel on a Prague stage Saturday to congratulate him in front of his supporters.
“Your victory is a victory of hope, of hope that decency and honesty is not a weakness but a power that could lead to victory even in politics,” Caputova said.
“Personally, I’m happy that we have a new head of state in our region and Europe who respects democratic values,” she said.
Pavel said he planned to travel to Slovakia and Ukraine for his first foreign trips as president, and also to Poland to assure President Andrzej Duda that his country fully respects its NATO commitments and the alliance’s principle of collective defense.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy congratulated Pavel in a tweet written in Czech, adding he looked forward to their close cooperation.
Czechia has been a firm supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. The Ukraine war was a core campaign issue. Babis presented himself as a peacemaker and labeled Pavel a warmonger due to his military past.
In his most controversial statement, Babis said he wouldn’t send troops to Poland or the Baltics if the NATO allies were attacked. He later backtracked.
Losing the race to Pavel was another major defeat for Babis 68, a former prime minister. His centrist ANO (YES) movement ended up in opposition after losing the 2021 general election.
Zeman, the outgoing president, had backed Babis, one of country’s richest people. The two men share euroskeptic views and the habit of using anti-migrant rhetoric.
While Babis has been a divisive figure, he maintained his popular support with older voters. He accused Pavel, during a campaign marred by false accusations, of having been a KGB-trained communist spy. He provided no evidence for the claim, and went on to compare his opponent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Zeman, who took office in March 2013, was the country's first president elected by popular vote. His second and final five-year term expires in March. Lawmakers elected the previous two presidents, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.
Before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Zeman divided the nation with his pro-Russia stance and support for closer ties with China.