Czech Republic Elects Retired NATO General as Its President

The Czech Republic on Saturday elected Petr Pavel, a retired senior NATO general and political novice, as president, according to nearly complete results, with voters decisively rejecting the rival candidacy of a populist billionaire and cementing the country’s position as a robust supporter of Ukraine.

Mr. Pavel, a former chief of the general staff of the Czech Army and chairman of the NATO Military Committee, defeated the tycoon Andrej Babis, a pugnacious former prime minister who had sought to cast his opponent in Saturday’s runoff vote as a warmonger intent on dragging Czech soldiers into the conflict in Ukraine.

Mr. Babis’s tactics copied those of a close former ally, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orban, who won a landside victory last April after falsely claiming that his main rival wanted to send Hungarian troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.

But that argument flopped for Mr. Babis in the Czech Republic, which has far more diverse media outlets than Hungary, where Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party and its business allies have a tight grip on television and most other sources of information.

With more than 99 percent of the votes counted, the tally gave Mr. Pavel a decisive victory: 58 percent to 42 percent. Two weeks ago, in the first round of voting, Mr. Pavel and Mr. Babis finished neck and neck.

The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent, Milos Zeman, who was barred from running by term limits, stretched its limited powers to try to tilt Czech foreign policy toward Russia and China and loosen the Central European country’s moorings in the West.

Mr. Zeman, who last year dropped his previously pro-Kremlin views, did not upset the Czech government’s strong support for Ukraine, which has included sending tanks and other military hardware, but his reputation for heavy drinking and disruptive eccentricity has often raised questions abroad over the Czech Republic’s direction.

Taking a swipe at Mr. Zeman’s decade-long tenure, Mr. Pavel on Saturday declared the election’s outcome a “victory for the values that we share — truth, respect, humility.”

“I will make sure these values return to Prague Castle,” he added, referring to the seat of the Czech presidency.

Neither Mr. Pavel nor Mr. Babis share Mr. Zeman’s eastward leanings, but their race represented a stark clash in political styles — between low-key pragmatism and rambunctious populism.

Andrej Babis arriving on Monday at a campaign event in Brno, Czech Republic. Mr. Babis was defeated by Mr. Pavel. Credit…Martin Divisek/EPA, via Shutterstock

Otto Eibl, the head of the political science department at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno, said Mr. Pavel’s victory “could be a moment of calming and perhaps a step toward improving the political culture in the country.”

“But,” Mr. Eibl continued, “it will depend on how Babis handles his defeat — whether he continues to add fuel to the fire, or acknowledges the victory” of his rival.

Speaking on Saturday at his party’s headquarters in Prague, Mr. Babis conceded defeat, but he showed no sign of bowing out of politics. He said the result showed that he had strong support and could win the next parliamentary election in 2025.

Mr. Pavel, a former paratrooper widely known as “the general,” campaigned on the slogan, “Leading with experience and calm in difficult times.” Mr. Babis, who was recently acquitted of fraud charges relating to European Union funding, fanned fears of war spreading to the Czech Republic, claiming that “the general does not believe in peace.”

The clash between the two men made the vote — the first in a series of important elections this year in Eastern and Central Europe — a significant test of whether Europe’s once rising populist tide has crested.

Despite the Czech president’s limited formal powers, the post carries great symbolic weight. This year’s election, with a first round of voting featuring eight candidates, stirred even more interest than usual, with more than 70 percent of voters casting ballots in Saturday’s runoff, the highest turnout in a Czech election.

That populism continues to be a force was shown last year by Mr. Orban’s landslide victory in Hungary, but its fortunes elsewhere have been mixed. It suffered a big setback in the Czech Republic in October 2021 when Mr. Babis lost his post as prime minister after a broad alliance of centrist and leftist parties won a parliamentary election. Elections last year in Slovenia delivered another blow, with voters ousting Janez Jansa, a far-right admirer of Donald J. Trump and a close ally of Mr. Orban.

But anti-establishment populism could gain ground in elections this year in Slovakia, whose centrist government collapsed in December, opening the way for a possible return to power by Robert Fico, a belligerent former prime minister tainted by corruption and other scandals.

The key test, however, will be an election this fall in Poland, the region’s most populous country, which has been governed since 2015 by the deeply conservative and nationalist Law and Justice party.

Barbora Petrova contributed reporting from Prague.

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