24th Mar 2023


How Pavel won big as new Czech president — and why it matters

  • Petr Pavel won by a landslide: 58 percent to Andrej Babis' 42 represent is unusually high margin in a run-off election, on record voter turnout (70 percent, a number not seen since the 1990s) (Photo: Twitter)
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The decisive victory over Andrej Babis in the run-off elections last weekend secured Petr Pavel — a retired army general and former chairman of the Nato military committee — the position of Czech president for the next five years.

Strictly speaking, the victory will have little direct effect on domestic policy making. The Czech Republic has a parliamentary system where prime ministers govern.

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  • When his campaign began two years ago, his rallies in Czech towns could attract as little as ten to 15 people. While a decorated general and military diplomat, he was a fairly obscure figure (Photo: Wikimedia)

Still, Pavel's success is significant. For the Czechs, it sends a signal that unhinged populism and vitriolic campaigning does not necessarily win elections.

For Europeans, it is a sign that democracy — though bitterly tested in recent years — is alive and kicking.

Pavel won by a landslide. His 58 percent to his opponent's 42 represent an unusually high margin in a run-off election. The support also surpassed anything that the current president Zeman ever received and with a record voter turnout (70 percent came to vote, a number not seen since the 1990s) the president-elect will assume office with a particularly strong mandate.

Pavel's victory was predicted by several polling agencies. His success nevertheless cannot be seen as preordained.

When his campaign began two years ago, his rallies in Czech towns could attract as little as 10 to 15 people. While a decorated general and military diplomat, he was a fairly obscure figure. According to public surveys from that time only 65 per cent Czechs knew who he was. Meanwhile his main opponent Andrej Babis had already been a prime minister and the fourth richest man in the country.

Why did then Pavel win so big?

The first reason has everything to do with his rival. Simply put, Andrej Babis is the Czecho(slovak) watered-down version of Donald Trump.

An unscrupulous businessmen turned into a media-savvy politician, Babis started a popular movement that propelled him into the premier's seat. Subsequent years revealed, however, that demagoguery and twisting the truth spoke to his political style, that his managerial skills were suspect at best and that he was a man for himself more than for others.

His persona divided the country. Especially the educated, the young and the citizens in big cities came to see him as a political evil.

This was reflected in general elections in which Babis´s ANO suffered from consecutive defeats. By the time the presidential elections rolled around, experts believed that the billionaire would likely lose to any candidate who could unify the anti-Babis vote.

Pavel proved to be this unifier. Although his campaign was not particularly inventive (in fact it was fairly conservative in its approach and messaging), his behaviour personified the his campaign's motto: "order and peace".

Pavel exuded calmness, confidence and decency. He also treated people and facts fairly. This helped him bring on board not just the youth but his rivals from the first round. The Czech media too were largely favourable towards the retired general. In this matter Pavel made Babis feel what Trump has always complained about: everybody seemed to be against him.

The election of Pavel, however, was not just a confirmation of his individual appeal. His communist past was a clear stain on his resume. Interestingly, it did not play a big role. Thirty years since the Velvet Revolution, it seems that the Czech society was ready to move on.

Pavel's election must be also interpreted as a referendum on Czech Republic's position in world affairs.

Particularly the Ukrainian crisis has affected the country, causing high inflation, influx of refugees and substantial expenditures on the part of the government to aid the Ukrainian efforts. This situation in return led to feelings of insecurity and anti-government sentiments amongst certain segments of the Czech public.

Fears of being dragged into a war and economic ills connected with the crisis have been one of the most dominant themes of the election. Babis tried to capitalise on these feelings with his campaign slogan: "I will not drag Czechia into war. I am a diplomat. Not a soldier". It did not work.

Despite Pavel's openly articulated pro-Ukrainian and pro-Western stance, the majority voted for him.

Petr Pavel is 61 years old, physically and mentally fit, fluent in English and educated at King's College London, amongst others. He has a long history of successfully working with European partners and institutions. He will represent a different course than his predecessors. If the past is a guide, we will not find any populist anti-EU rhetoric that was typical for Klaus, nor will Pavel flirt with leaders in Kremlin and Beijing as did Zeman.

As the head of the Nato military committee, Pavel showed great concern about Putin's regime already many years ago. After this election, he proclaimed that his first state visit was to be in Kiev. Several days later, his support for and amicable call with Taiwan's Tsai Ing-Wen strongly irked the power-holders in Beijing. If anything, the democratic forces in Europe will find a reliable ally in the new president.

When asked who he wanted to model his presidency after, Pavel spoke highly of Vaclav Havel. Indeed, Havel might have been the last Czech politician who inspired people at home and overseas.

After a long time, the Czech Republic has high hopes again. Only time will tell if Pavel delivers.

Author bio

Ivo Plsek is an assistant professor at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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