The decisive victory of Petr Pavel in the second round of the Czech presidential election, held on Friday and Saturday, has been greeted with relief in Brussels and other European capitals. Pavel and his opponent, former prime minister Andrej Babis, were neck and neck in the first round, but the retired general seems to have picked up most of the support of the eliminated candidates, eventually winning by a comfortable 58 to 42 per cent margin on a poll of more than 70 per cent.
Though the Czech president is commander-in-chief of the army, has functions in relation to the constitutional court and the central bank and can veto legislation, the position is chiefly a ceremonial one. But the often wayward behaviour of the outgoing president, Milos Zeman, his populist interventions and his obvious soft spot for China and – until the invasion of Ukraine –Russia, seem to have demonstrated to Czech voters that even a ceremonial president can wreak havoc in political life. Indeed Pavel declared that one of his main reasons for entering politics was so that Czechs could have a president of whom they need not be ashamed.
Babis, a wealthy businessman worth more than $4 billion, has been investigated by the Czech police and the European Anti-Fraud Office. He was acquitted on fraud charges earlier this month. In the election campaign he portrayed his opponent, who had previously occupied a senior role in Nato’s command as well as being chief-of-staff of the Czech armed forces, as someone who could drag the country into direct military conflict with Russia. Pavel stressed his support for Ukraine and this seems to have won the support of voters.
Babis’s political career is unlikely to be over. While Pavel enjoyed overwhelming support in the capital, his opponent’s complaints about Ukrainian refugees seem to have resonated with voters in more deprived areas. However, there was no ambiguity about the overall result and the Czechs now have a head of state whose positions would not embarrass its first post-communist president, Vaclav Havel.