Retired Nato commander Petr Pavel has been elected president of the Czech Republic, winning voters over with a promise of full commitment to Nato and a vow to “restore integrity” to the presidency.
In the second round of voting on Saturday Pavel comfortably beat former prime minister Andrej Babiš, who had the backing of incumbent president Miloš Zeman.
Pavel took 57 per cent of the votes compared with 43 per cent for Babiš, according to preliminary results with 93 per cent of votes counted after polls closed.
Pavel portrayed the runoff as “a clash of two worlds”. He tweeted that he stood against “the one represented by Babiš and Zeman with him. A world of chaos, failure to solve problems, personal gain and behind-the-scenes influences”.
Zeman has served the maximum two terms in office, during which he shaped foreign policy by embracing China and Russia as key partners. He did not distance himself from Russian president Vladimir Putin until Moscow’s all-out attack on Ukraine began last February.
Neither candidate secured the required absolute majority in the first round of voting two weeks ago but Pavel went into the second round as clear favourite after other candidates who had been knocked out urged their supporters to back him in the run-off. Several warned that Babiš would continue Zeman’s style of presidency and place undue pressure on prime minister Petr Fiala’s coalition government.
The government has executive power in the Czech Republic, not the president.
Pavel’s campaign underlined his military credentials and commitment to Nato. He served as chair of the defence pact’s military committee between 2015 and 2018.
In contrast Babiš’s foreign policy raised concerns among Czech allies after he suggested that troops should not be sent to help Poland and fellow Nato Baltic states if they came under attack. He later said he only meant he did not want the Ukraine conflict to escalate into a worldwide war.
Babiš is likely to remain prominent in Czech politics as founding leader of his ANO opposition party.
During his campaign, Babiš sought to blame the coalition government for leading the country into an economic slowdown.
Luděk Niedermayer, Czech economist and member of the European parliament, said Babiš had been counting on a quick and clear deterioration of the economic situation because of the war and the energy crisis to attack the government.
“But for now it doesn’t look quite so bad, we still have strong employment data and it’s hard to imagine a deep recession,” he said.