Prague, Czech Republic Former NATO general Petr Pavel will become the fourth president of the Central European country after winning a tough election.
Hours after the polls closed on Saturday, Pavel was declared the winner in the second round. Preliminary results indicated that he had a winning percentage of 58.3% in the horse race.
The impressive margin of his victory over former prime minister Andrej Babis signals a surge in support for liberal democracy, after several years of populist dominance.
It also fueled hopes among its supporters that, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the Czech Republic had now firmly established itself in the Western mainstream.
Pavel, 61, will replace Milos Zeman, an outspoken populist accused of encouraging polarization in the country’s political landscape. Zeman’s second and final term under constitutional restrictions expires on March 8.
Speaking after announcing his victory, Pavel’s commitment sought to bridge the gap in Czech society.
“I see neither victory nor defeat for the voters of this country,” he said. Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility triumphed. I am ready to return these values \u200b\u200bin my service not only to the fortress, but also to our republic.
The Czech presidency is primarily a ceremonial role. However, Zeman has spent the past decade testing the limits of his few powers, which include official appointments to the government, the Constitutional Court and the central bank.
And bluntly, it has also mixed up foreign policy by pushing for closer ties with Russia and China, in direct contradiction to the government’s official position that EU and NATO membership are key cornerstones.
The centre-right Prime Minister Peter Fiala’s government has not directly backed Pavel due to fears that anger over the cost of living crisis will hurt his campaign. However, the Independent’s victory was met with a standing ovation.
Marketa Pekarova-Adamova, speaker of parliament and leader of the Top09 coalition, told Al Jazeera that the “fundamental values and goals of the president-elect are in line” with those of the government.
Although a little wooden, the square-jawed venerable ex-soldier was a strong candidate. But Pavel’s winning margin was also fueled by the votes cast against his opponent.
After Babis, 68, and Pavel qualified for a runoff on the first ballot on Jan. 14, several of the six defeated candidates urged their supporters to swing behind the former general.
Babis, a populist billionaire whose tenure as prime minister has been plagued by corruption scandals, has long accused the country’s liberal democratic forces of leading an “anti-Babi” coalition. Similar cooperation from a quintet of center and center-right parties unseated him as prime minister in October 2021.
Nevertheless, Babis’ ANO remained the most prominent in Parliament, thanks to popular support drawn largely from the older, rural and poorer classes. Many have been concerned that Babis’ amalgamation of economic, political and media power – he owns several newspapers and radio stations – poses a threat to democracy.
With Russia fiercely at war in Ukraine, its approach to foreign policy has also worried many. Although he was no friend of Moscow or Beijing, he was a transactional politician who lacked an ideological foundation.
This allowed him, during his election campaign, to turn his weapons toward the government’s support of Ukraine, aiming to add the votes of fragmented anti-establishment voters to the support of his base.
Describing Pavel as a “warmonger” who sought to send the Czechs to the front line, Babis repeated tales from the Kremlin where he declared himself a “champion of peace”.
While this may have attracted additional support, it also appears to be helping galvanize liberal voters, adding to their concern that under the president’s presidency the billionaire will complicate relations with EU and EU partners.
The voter turnout was about 70 percent, the highest percentage since direct presidential elections were held in 2013.
“Babis’s campaign crossed all borders and helped rally his opponents,” said Otto Ibel, chair of the political science department at Masaryk University in Brno. He turned the elections into a referendum on himself and his political style. and lost. »
Many also saw that Pavel was more inclined to preserve the dignity of the presidency than his rival, known for his emotional outbursts.
It mattered to the Czech Republic, Jiri Behe, a political analyst and former advisor to Vaclav Havel, the communist-era playwright and dissident who served as head of state for a decade after the birth of the Czech Republic in 1993, suggested.
Despite the performance of Zeman and his predecessor, the deeply eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus, Behe said the presidency remains a highly symbolic position that requires political shrewdness.
Pavel, a staunch critic of Zeman and Babis, said he wanted to see an end to populist politics.
He said after the first round of elections: “The main question is whether the chaos and populism will continue or will we go back to respecting the rules.”
On economic and social issues, the president-elect has maintained a conservative yet liberal approach. He stressed that financial balance is vital, while warning not to forget the weakness of society. He also supported the EU’s Green Deal and the Czech Republic’s adoption of the euro.
“Pavel radiates leadership and there is hope that he can help calm the Czech political scene,” Ibel said.
“moderate political views”
While the former general lacked political experience, he was well versed in negotiation procedures and international relations, having served in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, as head of the Czech Army and chairman of NATO’s Military Committee in 2015-2018.
During the campaign, he urged the Czechs to trust his military experience as war raged in the east. At the same time, he is forced to stand up for himself amid revelations of his training as a spy in the communist era.
“Given his limited political experience and moderate political views, Pavel is unlikely to push the constitutional limits of power the way Milos Zeman did,” predicts Andrius Tursa of risk consultancy Teneo International.
Instead, Pavel was expected to vigorously support Fiala’s efforts to return the country to the Western mainstream, after the confusion spread by Zeman and Babis.
“The presidency of Peter Pavel should help the government implement its domestic and foreign policy priorities,” Adamova said. I am also sure that he will do everything possible to improve the image of our country abroad. »
As a Russian and Chinese hawk, Pavel has been a staunch advocate of Prague’s support for kyiv and its efforts to anchor the country more firmly in the EU and NATO.
“Czech diplomacy has stopped maneuvering between East and West,” Adamova said. “We belong to the community of democratic countries and we must act and behave accordingly.”
Like when Fiala replaced Babis as prime minister, the voters’ decision to replace the misguided Zeman with the former general “would be welcomed by the country’s NATO and EU partners,” suggested a senior Western diplomat based in Prague, who asked not to be named. .