Petr Pavel, a retired army general, defeated populist billionaire Andrej Babis in a runoff vote on Saturday to become the new Czech president.
Pavel, 61, will succeed controversy-courting Milos Zeman in the largely ceremonial but prestigious post. With the ballots from 99.5 per cent of polling stations counted by the Czech Statistics Office, Pavel had 58.2 per cent of the vote compared with 42.8 per cent for Babis.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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