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Retired general Pavel wins battle for Czech presidency

As nearly all votes in the Czech Republic’s presidential elections have been counted, Czech presidential hopeful Andrej Babiš accepted an election defeat and extended his congratulations, in a speech to supporters on Saturday, to retired Czech army general Petr Pavel on his victory in the electoral standoff.

With more than 58 percent of the vote, Petr Pavel outstripped billionaire businessman and former prime minister Andrej Babiš, after 96.9 percent of voting districts were counted. This is also very likely a farewell to Babiš who was a key although the polarising figure in Czech politics for a decade.

Running as an independent, Pavel managed to garner the backing of the centre-right government. At his election headquarters on Saturday, as the results flowed in indicating his victory, he centred his speech on “values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility”. To the president-elect, these are the values that won.

“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,” he said.

Although the values Pavel mentioned could have contributed to his victory, more concrete policy items he wrapped his campaign around included the 10.5 million Czech Republic remaining firmly in the European Union and NATO military alliance. Pavel also made it clear the country under his presidency would keep on supporting the government’s continued aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.

Pavel, 61, has come across as an enthusiast of adopting the euro, a topic that successive governments have put aside. While enjoying the support of the government which consists of a right-wing contingent, he supports gay marriage and other progressive policies.

Although Czech presidents have few daily responsibilities, they do select prime ministers and central bank heads, enjoy a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.

Babiš’s NATO-sceptical narrative fails

Pavel will walk into the Prague Castle in March replacing outgoing Miloš Zeman – a divisive figure who occupied the office for the past decade and backed Babiš as his successor. Telling of potential presidential Babiš policies could perhaps be Zeman’s own take on world politics that includes a push for closer ties not just with Beijing but also Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine.

To dissuade voters from supporting Pavel, the former prime minister played a role of a fear monger saying that his rival, as a former soldier, could drag the Czechs into a war. In the context of the war in Ukraine, Babiš portrayed himself as eager to broker peace in Ukraine. Last week, he said he would not send Czech troops into an open conflict if Russia attacked Poland or the Baltic countries.

Following Pavel’s election, the Czech Republic will be set for a volte-face and 68-year-old Babiš’s attempts to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government to do more to help them will have gone to naught.

Babiš and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory on Saturday.

The President of the neighbouring Slovak Republic, Zuzana Čaputová, extended her “hearty congratulations” to Pavel, tweeting that with him “the hope that decency and truthfulness can be a force won.”

“I look forward to our cooperation, joint meetings and Slovak-Czech initiatives,” she tweeted.

Srdečne blahoželám @general_pavel k zvoleniu za českého 🦁 prezidenta. Spolu s Vami zvíťazila nádej, že slušnosť a pravdivosť môžu byť silou. Teším sa na našu spoluprácu, spoločné stretnutia a 🇸🇰+🇨🇿 iniciatívy.

— Zuzana Čaputová (@ZuzanaCaputova) January 28, 2023

It will be only on Tuesday that the result of the election will become available once it is published in a legal journal.

An army man

Perhaps Pavel’s army career influenced, to a degree, the voters’ choice. Having joined the army in Communist times, Pavel was decorated with a French military cross for valour during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and later advanced to lead the Czech general staff. He also became 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.

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