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PRAGUE — A former general defeated a billionaire former prime minister in the Czech Republic’s presidential election on Saturday — seen by some as a contest between constitutional democracy and populism, with Russia’s war in Ukraine in the background.
The Czechs favored Petr Pavel, who held a senior position in NATO, over Andrei Babis, who has played a huge role in the country’s business and political landscape over the past decade. Pavel led 58 percent to 42 percent with 99 percent of ballots counted.
In his acceptance speech, Pavel adopted a conciliatory tone, thanking everyone who came to the ballot box, including those who voted for Babis. “The values that won in this election are shared by the vast majority of us: truth, dignity, respect and humility,” he said.
“It is good that we will have a president who aims to unite the citizens,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said during a press conference after congratulating Pavel. “I look forward to working with Petr Pavel.”
Although the position of President is largely ceremonial, the role is important symbolically. Pavel’s victory cements a departure from populist politics – at least for now. The race has also been seen as a guide of sorts as Russia’s war in Ukraine changes electoral politics across Europe.
Pavel can show the continent “that populists can be defeated,” said Jiri Priban, professor of law and philosophy at Cardiff University in Wales. “This is a very strong message for the transatlantic relationship and also for the rule of law democracy – a system that is under pressure.”
Pavel replaces President Milos Zeman, who has sought to expand the presidency’s powers since his election a decade ago. Zeman appointed an unelected interim government (though it received no parliamentary approval), refused to appoint judges and professors he disliked, and blocked political appointments while siding with China and Russia.
Favoring Pavel over Babis may also indicate that the current climate in Europe is more favorable to war-hero multinationalists than politically-leaning oligarchs.
Babis, 68, is one of the richest Czechs and owns an empire ranging from agribusiness to chemicals to the media. When he became prime minister in 2017, he transferred his companies into a trust. However, his media often reflected his nationalist and anti-refugee views. And an scrutiny by the European Commission revealed that he influenced the allocation of EU subsidies to his companies.
In another domestic case, a Prague court acquitted him of fraud charges last month, ruling that transferring one of his businesses to his wife and children to qualify for EU subsidies to small businesses was “no crime is”.
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Pavel offered voters a very different choice.
He is a former paratrooper who served as part of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, where he helped rescue more than 50 French soldiers from enemy territory in 1993 and became a decorated hero.
From 2012 to 2015 he was Chief of General Staff of the Czech Army and from 2015 to 2018 Chairman of the NATO Military Committee.
Pavel and Babis emerged from a first ballot on January 15 with an almost identical percentage of votes. But then Pavel was supported by three of the six unsuccessful candidates, including second-placed Danuse Nerudova, while Babis’ support seemed limited to his ANO party, the far-right SPD and some fringe parties.
Pavel “clearly has the numbers on his side,” said Jiri Pehe, political scientist and director of NYU Prague. Babis’ only chance was to “discourage Pawel’s potential voters”.
He attempted to do so during the inter-round campaign, which was intensely hostile, riddled with disinformation, and largely dominated by one theme: the war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a major impact on Czech society. The country’s strong support for the Ukrainian side has sparked protests and counter-protests. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled to the Czech Republic – a source of pride for some Czechs and frustration for others.
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Pavel has vowed to keep the country on a resolutely pro-Western path and to continue helping Ukraine.
Alluding to how many Czechs are unsettled by the fighting just across the European Union border, his campaign posters advertised him with the words: “Lead with experience and calm in difficult times.”
Babis, meanwhile, condemned the war and at the same time portrayed Pavel as a warmonger. His posters claimed: “The general does not believe in peace” and promised: “I will not drag the Czech Republic to war. I’m a diplomat, not a soldier.” Social media posts and chain letters, meanwhile, falsely claimed that Pavel was planning a general mobilization.
In a recent televised debate, Babis appeared to question NATO’s collective security clause. When asked whether he would send Czech troops to the Baltic States or Poland in the event of a Russian invasion, he replied “certainly not” – which caused an immediate outcry. Although he quickly dismissed the remark, the damage appeared to be done.
His defeat marks the end of an era, analysts said. “After ten years of Milos Zeman, Pavel as president would be a big change for our international partners,” said Pehe of NYU Prague.
“I would expect his presidency to be a lot more low-key. He would focus on representing the country well abroad,” Pehe said. “Babis, on the other hand, would get involved politically. Babis would just be the sequel to Zeman.”