Former Czech general Petr Pavel has won a landslide victory in the second round of the Czech presidential election over billionaire populist Andrej Babis.
The election of Pavel by 58.3% to 41.7% – a record margin – should bolster the country’s centre-right government, which had endorsed him. However, the election has also further polarised society as the government wrestles with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and strongly backs Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
Pavel – whose slogan was “Let's return order and peace to the Czech Republic" – is expected to work co-operatively with the government, rather than pursue his own agenda, as current President Milos Zeman has done in the past by forging close links with China and Russia.
The election of Pavel – the country’s first non-political president – will also mark a clean break with the country’s last two presidents, former premiers Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman, and a return to the liberal values of Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president after the collapse of Communism.
In a symbolic move, Pavel's victory celebration was attended by progressive President Zuzana Caputova of neighbouring Slovakia, who made a surprise trip for the occasion. The two presidents are already planning a joint trip to Kyiv shortly after Pavel's inauguration.
In a tweet on January 28, Babis thanked his 2.4mn voters (in a country of 10.5mn people) for a "famous result". But his crushing defeat by 960,000 votes is a severe blow for the 68-year-old opposition leader and agro-chemical tycoon, who also lost power at the October 2021 general election. It will raise questions whether he will stay in politics until the 2025 election.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala was quick to congratulate Pavel as well as to denounce Babis for the style of his campaign. "This is also Andrej Babiš's third significant defeat. And it looks like we are witnessing the beginning of the end of his political era in our country. But let's not be mistaken, it can still be long and unpleasant," he said.
Pavel, 61, had narrowly won the first round on January 13-14 ahead of Babis, with 35.4%, with the other six candidates trailing far behind. Four of these candidates backed Pavel over Babis in the second round, with none backing the controversial tycoon, and the second round became a referendum on Babis, with many voters swinging behind the general to stop him winning.
In the second round, Babis fought an aggressive polarising campaign that tried to put off liberal voters for the other candidates by emphasising Pavel’s past as an ambitious officer who joined the Communist party and attended a “spy school”.
Babis’s attack is ironic, given that he also joined the party and is listed in the Czechslovak secret police files as an informer, an allegation he denies. He was also backed by the hardline Communist party in this election.
Pavel – who will be the first Czech president to have held a Communist party card when the regime collapsed in 1989 – has apologised for his membership of the party, while denying that he had planned to become a spy.
“It was a mistake I can’t change,” Pavel told Czech daily echo24 in an interview. “But I am convinced that in 33 years of service to democracy at home and abroad, even at the risk of my own life, I have made up for this mistake."
At the same time, Babis also reached out to disaffected and extremist voters by accusing his independent rival of being closely tied to the government, which he said was not doing enough to help people cope with the cost-of-living crisis.
He also claimed Pavel was a “warmonger” for supporting Ukraine. His billboards proclaimed: "The general does not believe in peace. Vote for peace. Vote Babiš."
He suggested in TV debates that, if elected, he would organise an international conference to reach a peace between Russia and Ukraine. Babis even said during a TV debate on January 22 that he would not send Czech troops to defend Poland or the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion, a statement he later retracted.
Babis’ message was reinforced by Russian disinformation, including video footage circulating on social media that appeared to have been carefully edited so as to falsely depict Pavel advocating war against Russia.
The tension between Babis’ contrasting tactical approaches to the two mutually exclusive electorates eventually backfired, with liberal voters flocking to Pavel out of fear of Babis’ extremism, while the far-right SPD party still refused to back Babis. Turnout was a record 70.2%.
Pavel has had a distinguished military career, becoming the chief of the general staff and, from 2015 to 2018, the chairman of the Nato military committee, the highest Nato position reached by an officer from a former Warsaw Pact country.
Pavel was also the commander of the Czech unit on the UNPROFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia, during which in 1993 he led a unit that rescued 55 French soldiers who were under bombardment, for which he was awarded the Legion of Honour.
Pavel will mark a sharp break with Zeman, who could not stand again, when he takes over as president in March. Zeman, a strong ally of Babis, had endorsed his fellow populist in the election.
Yet Pavel has positioned himself slightly to the left of the government, criticising it for not doing enough to help ordinary people, and he has supported same-sex marriage, which is not in the coalition programme.
In foreign affairs, where the president has more powers, he will be a strong supporter of Nato as well as the EU, having backed adoption of the euro, while the government is still split on the issue.