Retired Nato general Petr Pavel wins Czech presidency

Pro-Ukraine candidate defeats populist billionaire and former PM Andrej Babis

Czech president-elect Petr Pavel is a former head of the armed forces. AP
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Former Nato general Petr Pavel was elected president of the Czech Republic on Saturday, in a result set to keep the country among Ukraine's supporters in the war with Russia.

Mr Pavel won 58 per cent of the vote in a run-off against billionaire populist and former prime minister Andrej Babis, who took 42 per cent.

The president does not make day-to-day policy decisions but oversees the democratic process, appoints the prime minister and is considered a weighty voice in politics.

Mr Pavel, 61, said he would seek to unite the country after a campaign in which Mr Babis received death threats and a hoax spread alleging that Mr Pavel was dead.

“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” said Mr Pavel, 61, who has never held political office.

“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 Prague Castle and our politics.”

The combative Mr Babis had sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government do more to help them.

Mr Babis, who lost power in 2021, also played on his rival's military background to stoke fears that the Czech Republic would be dragged into a war with Russia.

He caused a stir by suggesting he would not send troops to Poland or the Baltic states if they were attacked, the cornerstone principle of Nato. He later backtracked.

Former prime minister Andrej Babis conceded defeat in his bid to become head of state. EPA

Mr Babis conceded defeat to Mr Pavel after the two-day ballot.

“I would like to wish him to be the president of all citizens of the Czech Republic, to be sensitive to their problems and fight for the interests of the Czech Republic,” he said.

A former paratrooper, Mr Pavel was the chief of the Czech defence staff from 2012 to 2015 and subsequently chairman of the Nato military committee.

He campaigned as an independent and but won the backing of the centre-right government, leading Mr Babis to portray him as the establishment choice.

A social liberal, he supported Czech arms donations to Ukraine and said it should be given “the same chance we were” to join the European Union. The Czech Republic has sent weapons such as T-72 tanks of Soviet design.

Mr Pavel will take office in March, succeeding outspoken President Milos Zeman, who had pushed for closer ties with Russia until the invasion of Ukraine.

Turnout in the run-off was an unusually high 70.2 per cent.

Updated: January 28, 2023, 5:57 PM