Before the collapse of communism in 1989, Pavel was a member of the Communist Party — like most professional soldiers in the former Czechoslovakia at the time. He also underwent military intelligence training while serving in the Czechoslovak army.
After 1990, Pavel continued his training and made a career for himself in the military. He attended renowned American and British military academies, studying, among other things, international relations.
Decorated for valor during UN peacekeeping mission
Pavel became well known outside the army while serving with UN peacekeeping troops, UNPROFOR, in the former Yugoslavia. In 1993, he led an operation during which 50 French soldiers were evacuated from a combat zone where Serbs and Croats were fighting in eastern Croatia. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Czech Medal for Heroism for his role in the evacuation.
This explains the use of the word "hero" on some of his election posters, which led journalists to ask him whether he lacked modesty. Pavel replied: "I did not say that about myself; President Vaclav Havel said this about me."
Pavel's rapid rise through the army ranks began in an elite paratrooper unit and culminated in his appointment as chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces from 2012 to 2015, and his subsequent appointment as chairman of NATO's military committee, the alliance's highest military body. He retired from the army in 2018.
A calm and resolute candidate
Pavel began preparing his bid for the presidency in 2019, long before he announced his candidacy. He traveled the length and breadth of the country giving countless interviews and speaking to people about his experience in the army, defense issues and his life.
It was around this time that there was first talk of Pavel wanting to run for president. In the Czech Republic, where many were disappointed by the confrontational style of outgoing President Milos Zeman, Pavel found enough backers for his bid. He was the clear favorite in the opinion polls until Babis announced he was joining the race.
Pavel, who sought to portray himself as an independent, unpolitical candidate, demonstrated his in-depth understanding of military and international matters throughout the campaign. "I learned diplomacy in the highest echelons of NATO when I sought agreement between 30 member states," he said in one TV debate.
Pavel cut a calm and dignified figure and won over many Czechs with his valor, his resolute performance, his penchant for fast motorcycles and not least his physical similarity to the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who lived from 1850 to 1937.
Campaign dominated by Ukraine, communist past
Pavel went into the second round of the election with a slight lead over Babis. He received the backing of 44-year-old economist Danuse Nerudova, who came third in the first round of the election, and other pro-Western candidates. It looked as if he was a shoo-in for the presidency.
But some voters had a problem with the retired general's communist past. "This is a slap in the face for all victims of the communist regime," said Michael Kocab, a well-known composer, dissident and former minister for human rights, in an interview with Czech Radio. Fears that many pro-democracy voters would share this view and stay at home on polling day ultimately proved unfounded.
Before the election runoff, Babis attempted to sway voters by saying that Pavel would lead the country into war while he, Babis, would secure peace in Ukraine. But the claims did not help Babis, who has himself repeatedly been accused of working as an informant for the communist-era secret police.
After he was declared the winner, Pavel announced his first task would be to unite a nation that had been divided by the elections. He also emphasized what he stood for: "I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have prevailed in this election," he said, adding that he was ready to bring back these values not only to the presidential palace, but also to the country.
"Your victory is a victory of hope, of hope that decency and honesty is not a weakness but a power that could lead to victory even in politics," she told Pavel.
Before the Czech Republic and Slovakia peacefully split on December 31, 1992, the two nations were part of one country, Czechoslovakia. Relations between the two states remain strong to this day. Caputova and Pavel have announced their desire to visit the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, together in the near future.
Babis leaves political future open
Pavel was the clear favorite among first-time voters. "One of the reasons for Petr Pavel's success was that he succeeded in getting so many young voters to cast their votes, even those who had originally voted for Danuse Nerudova," said Pavel Maskarinec, a political scientist at Jan Evangelista Purkyne University in Usti nad Labem, north of Prague.
Maskarinec also said that despite the president-elect's brief communist past, Pavel was clearly a pro-European, pro-Western and pro-Atlantic candidate.
Babis has conceded defeat, and congratulated Pavel on his win. What he said about his own political future, however, was much more cryptic: "I wish you a world without Babis," he said. "Forget Babis. Try to live without Babis. Stop waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night feeling hatred for Babis."
Experts think it unlikely that Babis will retire from politics. He is still a member of parliament and leader of the opposition ANO party which, according to opinion polls, is the biggest party in the country and could win the parliamentary election in three years' time.