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Czech election: Ex-NATO general Pavel defeats ex-PM Babis

January 28, 2023

Retired NATO general Petr Pavel won against former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the race for president. Babis had labeled the vote "a referendum" on his political leadership.

Former general Petr Pavel arrives at his election headquarters to recognize preliminary results of presidential runoff
Petr Pavel has vowed to bring 'dignity' to the presidential officeImage: Petr David Josek/AP Photo/picture alliance

Voters in the Czech Republic cast their ballots on Saturday in a runoff presidential election, with retired NATO general Petr Pavel defeating former Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

"My presidency will succeed only when we all succeed together," Pavel said in his victory speech to supporters. "I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have won in this election," he continued.

With almost 99% of the vote in, Pavel received 58% support against Babis. 

Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on the win, while Babis conceded defeat. 

Polls closed at 2:00 p.m. local time (1300 UTC) in the second day of voting. Local media reported high voter turnout in the final hours of the election.

Pavel aims to be 'dignified president'

Pavel came out ahead in the first round of the presidential election earlier this month, but with only 35.4% of the vote to Babis' 35%, sending the two of them to the runoff vote. 

But as the second round vote neared, Pavel was ahead in the latest opinion polls with 58% to 59% support, compared with 41% to 42% for Babis.

The retired NATO general said on Friday, as he cast his vote, that he wanted to be "a dignified president" for country.

Babis, who is one of the richest men in Czech Republic, served as as prime minister from 2017 to 2021 and has faced legal troubles. He called the election "a referendum on Babis" and vowed to advocate for citizens suffering amid the country's cost of living crisis. 

The winner of the election is set to replace Milos Zeman, who has been an outspoken and divisive president. Zeman had fostered close ties with Moscow, but as Russia invaded Ukraine last year the 78-year-old fell in line with EU-wide opposition to Russia and support of Kyiv.

The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, but the role also involves naming the government, selecting the central bank governor and constitutional judges, as well as serving as commander of the armed forces.

Death threats and fraud charges

Babis' run for president in Czech Republic has been marred by scandal, even as he is supported by current-President Zeman. Since the first round of the presidential contest, Babis and his family have been targeted by death threats. 

But he has also been under scrutiny for fraud charges. Prosecutors accused Babis of playing a role in illegally obtaining €2 million ($2.02 million) in subsidies from the EU in 2008 for a wellness resort called Stork's Nest. The resort, located near Prague, is owned by members of Babis' family. Babis was ultimately acquitted.

Andrej Babis prior to the presidential election
Andrej Babis has said the presidential election is a referendum on himselfImage: Lukas Kabon/AA/picture alliance

Known for his combative style, Babis currently leads the largest opposition party in parliament. He has attacked Pavel for being the government's choice for president.

Babis campaigned on fears of Russia's war in Ukraine spreading, suggested that as a former soldier, Pavel could drag the Czechs into a bigger war.

Pavel backs Ukraine

For his part, Pavel has run as an independent, no-nonsense candidate. "I won't offer you pie in the sky, but instead I'll describe reality as it is," Pavel said.

He has backed keeping the central European country firmly within the EU and NATO military alliance. He is also in favor of the Czech Republic adopting the euro.

Pavel has pledged continuous aid and support to Ukraine, labeling Babis' accusations against him on the topic as "fearmongering." 

"I believe it will be important to continue to explain to people why it is important to support Ukraine," he said on Friday.

Pavel is said to also support progressive policies such as gay marriage.

wd, jcg/rs (AP, dpa, Reuters)