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New Czech president aims to renew 'truth, dignity, respect'

January 30, 2023

Former NATO general Petr Pavel has won a sweeping election victory, defeating the populist billionaire and ex-Prime Minister Andrej Babis in a runoff election.

President-elect Petr Pavel speaks during a press conference on the preliminary results of the second round of the presidential election in Prague, Czech Republic, January 28, 2023
Petr Pavel was elected president of the Czech Republic with 58% of the vote, in an election that saw a record turnoutImage: Ondrej Deml/CTK Photo/IMAGO

Voters in the Czech Republic have chosen Petr Pavel, a retired army general, as their next president.

The 61-year-old Pavel, who until a few years ago was largely unknown to the Czech general public, swept to a clear and convincing victory over the weekend, garnering about 58% of all votes cast. Turnout in the election was a record 70%.

His opponent, Andrej Babis, the 68-year-old populist billionaire, former prime minister and head of the opposition Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party, managed just 42%. After the first round, both candidates had been neck and neck

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.

Supporters at Petr Pavel's campaign headquarters react with joy as votes are counted in the country's presidential election, January 28, 2023
The joy among Pavel's supporters was evident as the election results came in on Saturday eveningImage: David W. Cerny/REUTERS

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."

Andrej Babis during the last radio debate before the second round of the presidential election, Prague, January 27, 2023
Andrej Babis was left trailing with only 42% of the voteImage: Lukas Kabon/AA/picture alliance

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.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with the chaotic rule of then prime minister Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic had one of the highest deaths-per-capita rates worldwide. Pavel put together a crisis management team of experts and attempted to support the government by providing sound advice.

Aerial view of the final event of Petr Pavel's campaign in Old Town Square, Prague, January 25, 2023
Supporters turned out in their thousands in Prague's Old Town Square for the final rally of Pavel's presidential campaign on January 25Image: Anna-Marie Krizova/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

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.

Petr Pavel (left) and Andrej Babis (right) pose for a photo before a TV debate ahead of the second round of the presidential election in the Czech Republic, Prague, January 25, 2023
Although they were almost neck and neck after the first round, Pavel (left) pulled well clear of his rival Babis in the runoffImage: Tomas Tkacik/SOPA Images/ZUMA/picture alliance

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. 

Surprise visit by Slovak president

Zuzana Caputova, the president of neighboring Slovakia, made a surprise appearance at Pavel's campaign headquarters on election night.

"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.

A billboard for Petr Pavel reads 'Enough of chaos. I offer order and dignity. General Pavel'
Billboards for Petr Pavel told voters: 'Enough of chaos. I offer order and dignity. General Pavel'Image: Ludek Perina/CTK Photo/IMAGO

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.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with blond hair, wearing a white shirt and a blue and black checked jacket
Lubos Palata Correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, based in Prague