The Czech Republic’s presidential election was won on Saturday by former army leader Petr Pavel, who ran on a platform of strong support for NATO, the EU, and help to Ukraine.
With virtually all voting districts reporting, Pavel, a 61-year-old retired general running for office for the first time, was projected to defeat billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis, a dominating but divisive force in Czech politics for a decade, with more than 58% of the vote.
Pavel, who had campaigned as an independent and gained the backing of the centre-right government, conveyed a message of unity and calm in society when addressing his election headquarters at a Prague concert venue on Saturday as results showed he had won.
“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” Pavel told supporters and journalists. “I am convinced that these values are shared by the vast majority of us, it is worth us trying make them part of our lives and also return them to the Prague Castle and our politics.”
Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.
Pavel will take office in March, replacing outgoing Milos Zeman, a divisive figure himself over his two terms in office over the past decade who had backed Babis as his successor.
Zeman had pushed for closer ties with Beijing and also with Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine, and Pavel’s election will mark a sharp shift.
Babis, 68, a combative business magnate who heads the biggest opposition party in parliament, had attacked Pavel as the government’s candidate. He sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government do more to help them.
Babis and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory on Saturday.