Former army chief and high NATO official Petr Pavel won the Czech Republic’s presidential election on Saturday with a pledge to keep the country firmly anchored in the West and bridge society’s political differences.
Pavel, a 61-year-old retired general running for office for the first time, won 58.3% of the vote with all voting districts reporting final results, defeating billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis, a dominant but polarising force in Czech politics for a decade.
Pavel, a social liberal who had campaigned as an independent and gained the backing of the centre-right government, conveyed a message of unity when addressing his supporters and journalists at a Prague concert venue on Saturday as results showed he had won.
“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” he said.
“I am convinced that these values are shared by the vast majority of us, it is worth us trying to make them part of our lives and also return them to the Prague Castle and our politics.”
Pavel has also fully backed continued support for Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s invasion.
Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.
Pavel will take office in March, replacing outgoing Milos Zeman, a divisive figure himself during his two terms in office over the past decade who had backed Babis as his successor.
Zeman had pushed for closer ties with Beijing and also with Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine, and Pavel’s election will mark a sharp shift.
Turnout in the runoff vote that ended on Saturday was a record high 70.2%.
The result of the election will only become official when published in a legal journal on Tuesday, but the outcome of the poll was already clear on Saturday.
Babis, 68, a combative business magnate who heads the biggest opposition party in parliament, had attacked Pavel as the government’s candidate. He sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government do more to help them.
Babis and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory. Slovakia’s liberal President Zuzana Caputova appeared at Pavel’s headquarters to congratulate him, a demonstration of their close political positions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy congratulated Pavel on his election on Twitter and said he looked forward to close cooperation.
Pavel has backed keeping the central European country of 10.5 million firmly in the European Union and NATO military alliance, and supports the government’s continued aid to Ukraine.
He supports adopting the euro, a topic that successive governments have kept on the back burner, and supports same-sex marriage and other progressive policies.
A career soldier, Pavel joined the army in Communist times, was decorated with a French military cross for valour during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and later rose to lead the Czech general staff and become chairman of NATO’s military committee for three years before retiring in 2018.
“I voted for Mr. Pavel because he is a decent and reasonable man and I think that the young generation has a future with him,” said Abdulai Diop, 60, after voting in Prague on Saturday.
Babis had campaigned on fears of the war in Ukraine spreading, and sought to offer to broker peace talks while suggesting Pavel, as a former soldier, could drag the Czechs into a war, a claim Pavel rejected.