PRAGUE: Retired NATO general Petr Pavel beat a billionaire former prime minister in an election runoff to become the fourth president of the Czech Republic, official results showed.
Pavel, a former paratrooper, won 58 percent of votes while Andrej Babis scored 42 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted, according to the Czech Statistical Office.
“I would like to thank those who voted for me and also those who did not but came to the polls, because they made it clear they honored democracy and cared about this country,” Pavel said after the results showed his victory.
“I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have won in this election,” he added.
The 61-year-old Pavel will in March replace President Milos Zeman, an outspoken and divisive politician who fostered close ties with Moscow before making a U-turn when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.
I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have won in this election.
Gen. Petr Pavel
Turnout in the EU and NATO member country of 10.5 million people was unusually high at 70 percent following an acrimonious campaign marked by controversy.
Babis and his family have been targeted by death threats, while Pavel was the victim of a hoax claiming he was dead as disinformation plagued the final campaign.
“Our community is somewhat hurt by the presidential campaign, by the multiple crises we have faced and are facing, but also by the political style that has recently prevailed here,” said Pavel.
“This has to change, and you have helped me to take the first step on the path towards this change.”
While the role is largely ceremonial, the Czech president names the government, picks the central bank governor and constitutional judges, and serves as commander of the armed forces.
Voting for Pavel in the small town of Dobrichovice southwest of Prague, Irena Cihelkova said that the new president should “be forthcoming and friendly, an asset for the country, and not make problems abroad like some other Czech statesmen.”
Pavel will be the fourth Czech president since the country’s independence following its peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993, four years after former Czechoslovakia shed four decades of totalitarian communist rule.
His predecessors were Vaclav Havel, an anti-communist dissident playwright who led the country from 1993-2003, economist Vaclav Klaus and Zeman.
A graduate of a military university, Pavel was decorated as a hero in the Serbo-Croatian war when he helped free French troops from a war zone.
He rose to chief of the Czech general staff and chair of NATO’s military committee.
Like Babis, Pavel was a member of the Communist Party in the 1980s.
But the man with a carefully trimmed beard and white hair, who has a passion for powerful motorbikes, has since become a strong advocate of EU and NATO membership.
“We have no better alternative. We should use all opportunities offered by membership and try to change that which we don’t like,” he said on his campaign website.
“Czechia is a sovereign state and a full member, therefore we can’t just sit quietly, nod and then slam the result. We have to be more active and, at the same time, constructive.”
Pavel has vowed to be an independent president unaffected by party politics and to continue to support aid to war-torn Ukraine as well as its bid to become an EU member.
“Naturally, Ukraine first has to meet all conditions to become a member, such as progress in battling corruption. But I believe it is entitled to get the same chance we got in the past,” he said.