On Saturday, the Czech Republic elected retired senior NATO general and political novice Petr Pavel as president, with voters decisively rejecting the populist billionaire rival as a staunch supporter of Ukraine. solidified the position of the country.
Pavel, the former chief of staff of the Czech army and chairman of the NATO Military Commission, has beaten Andrei Babis, a belligerent former prime minister and big shot who was looking to cast his opponents as warmongers in Saturday’s run-off elections. broke. Dragged Czech soldiers into the Ukrainian conflict.
Babis’ tactics mirrored those of former close ally Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orban. Orban scored a modest victory last April after falsely claiming that his main rival wanted to send Hungarian troops to fight Russia in Ukraine.
But in the Czech Republic, which has a much more diverse media than Hungary, where Orban’s ruling party Fidesz and its business allies hold tight to television and most other sources, the debate has failed. finished.
Over 99% of the vote was won, giving Pavel a decisive victory, 58% to 42%. In the first round of voting two weeks ago, Pavel and Babis battled it out for first place.
While the Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, incumbent Milos Zeman, who was barred from running due to term limits, expanded his limited powers to direct Czech foreign policy towards Russia and China. He tried to loosen the moorings of Central European countries in the West.
Zeman, who last year recanted his pro-Kremlin views, did not disrupt the Czech government’s strong support for Ukraine, including sending tanks and other military equipment, but his heavy drinking and destructive His reputation for quirkiness has often been called into question abroad. In the direction of the Czech Republic.
Pavel dismissed Zeman’s 10-year tenure on Saturday, declaring the election result “a victory for our shared values of truth, respect and humility.”
“We make sure that these values go back to Prague Castle,” he added, referring to the Czech presidency.
Neither Pavel nor Babis share Zeman’s Eastern leanings, but their race represents a sharp clash of political styles – between low-key pragmatism and violent populism.
Otto Ibl, head of the political department at Masaryk University in the Czech city of Brno, said Pavel’s victory was “a moment of calmness and could possibly be a step towards improving the country’s political culture.” There is,” he said.
“But,” continued Mr. Able.
Babis, speaking at the party’s headquarters in Prague on Saturday, conceded defeat but showed no signs of stepping down from politics. He said the results show he has strong support and that he could win the next parliamentary elections in 2025.
A former paratrooper, Pavel, popularly known as “The General,” campaigned under the slogan “Leading in difficult times with experience and composure.” Babis, who was recently acquitted of fraud charges related to European Union financing, fanned fears that war would spread to the Czech Republic, claiming that “generals don’t believe in peace.”
The clash between the two men is the first vote in a series of important elections in Eastern and Central Europe this year, and a crucial test of whether Europe’s once-rising populist tide has reached its peak. became.
Despite the Czech president’s limited formal powers, the post carries great symbolic weight. , with more than 70% of voters turning out in Saturday’s run-off, the highest turnout in a Czech election.
Populism remains a force, as evidenced by Mr Orban’s landslide victory in Hungary last year, but its fortunes elsewhere have been mixed. In October 2021, the Czech Republic suffered a major setback when Babis lost his prime ministership after a broad alliance of centrist and left-wing parties won parliamentary elections. Last year’s Slovenian elections dealt another blow as voters ousted Janez Jansa, a far-right worshiper of Donald J. Trump and a close ally of Mr. Orban.
But in Slovakia, where a centrist government collapsed last December, anti-establishment populism could gain support in this year’s elections, led by belligerent ex-prime minister Robert Fico, tainted by corruption and other scandals. It opened the way for a possible return to power.
But the key test will be elections this fall in Poland, the region’s most populous country.
Barbora Petrova Contributed to reporting from Prague.