PRAGUE — A former general defeated a billionaire former prime minister on Saturday in the Czech Republic’s presidential election — seen by some as a contest between constitutional democracy and populism, with Russia’s war in Ukraine in the background.
In his acceptance speech, Pavel struck a conciliatory tone, thanking everyone who came to the polls, 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’s good that we will have a president who made it his goal to unite citizens,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said during a news conference after congratulating Pavel. “I’m looking forward to cooperation with Petr Pavel.”
Although the position of president is largely ceremonial, the role is symbolically important. Pavel’s win cements a shift away from populist politics — at least for now. The race was also being watched as something of a bellwether, as Russia’s war in Ukraine reshapes electoral politics across Europe.
Pavel could show the continent “that populists can be beaten,” said Jiri Priban, a professor of law and philosophy at Cardiff University in Wales. “It is a very strong message for transatlantic relations and also for constitutional democracy — a system which is under strain.”
Pavel replaces president Milos Zeman, who has sought to stretch the power of the presidency since he was elected a decade ago. Zeman appointed an unelected caretaker government (though it failed to win parliamentary approval), refused to nominate judges and professors who displeased him and blocked political appointments, all while cozying up to China and Russia.
The preference for Pavel over Babis may also suggest that the current climate in Europe is more favorable for war-hero multinationalists than it is for politically inclined oligarchs.
Babis, 68, is one of the wealthiest Czechs, owning an empire that spans from agribusiness and chemicals to media. He put his companies into a trust when he became prime minister in 2017. But his media outlets often echoed his nationalist and anti-refugee views. And an audit by the European Commission found that he influenced the allocation of European Union subsidies to his businesses.
In a separate domestic case, a Prague court cleared him of fraud charges earlier this month, ruling that transferring one of his companies to his wife and children to make it eligible for E.U. small-business subsidies “is not a crime.”
Pavel presented voters with a very different sort of choice.
He is a former paratrooper who served as a part of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, where in 1993 he helped free more than 50 French soldiers from hostile territory and became a decorated hero.
He was chief of the general staff of the Czech army from 2012 to 2015 and chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 2015 to 2018.
Pavel and Babis emerged from a first round of voting on Jan. 15 with a nearly identical share of the vote. But then Pavel was endorsed by three out of the six unsuccessful candidates, including the runner-up Danuse Nerudova, while Babis’s support appeared limited to his ANO (“Yes”) party, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) and some fringe parties.
Pavel “clearly has the numbers on his side,” Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and the director of NYU Prague. Babis’s only chance was “to discourage Pavel’s potential voters.”
That’s what he tried to do during the inter-round campaign, which was intensely hostile, rife with disinformation and largely dominated by one topic: the war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a big 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.
Pavel has vowed to keep the country on a firmly pro-Western path and to continue helping Ukraine.
In a nod to how many Czechs have been unnerved by the fighting just beyond the European Union’s border, his campaign billboards promoted him as: “Leading with experience and calm in difficult times.”
Babis, meanwhile, condemned the war while also casting Pavel as a warmonger. His billboards claimed that “The General doesn’t believe in peace” and promised: “I won’t drag the Czech Republic into war. I’m a diplomat, not a soldier.” Social media posts and chain mail, 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 deploy Czech troops to the Baltic States or Poland if Russia invaded, he replied “certainly not” — spurring an immediate outcry. Though he quickly walked back the remark, the damage, it seemed, was done.
His defeat marks the end of an era, analysts said. “After ten years of Milos Zeman, having Pavel as president would be a huge change for our international partners,” said Pehe of NYU Prague.
“I would expect his presidency to be much more low-key. He would focus on representing the country well abroad,” Pehe said. “Babis, on the other hand, would engage in political activism. Babis would just be the continuation of Zeman.”