Czech Republic: An ex-general moves into Prague Castle


Former NATO General Petr Pavel is the new President of the Czech Republic. In a run-off he defeated the populist oligarch and former Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

Ex-NATO General Petr Pavel is the new President of the Czech Republic

With Petr Pavel, the Czech Republic will have an ex-general and former chairman of the NATO military committee as its new president. Pavel, who was unknown to the majority of the Czech public just a few years ago, won the runoff election on January 27/28, 2023 with around 58 percent of the votes. His opponent, the populist oligarch, head of the opposition ANO movement and former Prime Minister Andrei Babis, only got 42 percent. After the first ballot, both candidates were almost even. 

From communist soldiers to the top of NATO

Before the fall of communism in November 1989, 61-year-old Petr Pavel was a member of the Communist Party – like most professional soldiers. His CV also includes intelligence training in the Czechoslovak army. After 1990 Pavel continued this education and made a career. He studied at renowned American and British military schools, including international relations. He rose to military prominence while serving in the United Nations peacekeeping force in the former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR). There he led an operation in 1993 that rescued fifty French soldiers from a combat zone between Serbs and Croats in eastern Croatia. For this he was awarded the Order of the French Legion of Honor and the Czech Heroes' Medal. This allowed him to use the word “hero” on his election posters – including the medals. When journalists asked him during the election campaign if he wasn't immodest, he replied: “I'm not saying that about myself, that's what President Vaclav Havel said about me”.

Big cheering in the election campaign headquarters of election winner Petr Pavel

Pavel's meteoric military career, which began with an elite paratrooper unit, culminated in his appointment as Chief of Staff of the Czech Army (2012-2015) and his subsequent election as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee. The army general retired in 2018.

Three years of election preparation

In 2019, Pavel began preparations for the presidential campaign long before announcing his candidacy. He traveled around the Czech Republic speaking to citizens about his experiences in the army, defense issues and his life, giving many interviews.

During the Covid pandemic, which caused one of the highest death rates per capita in the Czech Republic because of the chaotic government of then Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Pavel assembled a team of crisis management experts and tried to support the government with sound advice. At that time it was already publicly discussed that Petr Pavel would like to run for the post of President of the Republic. In the Czech Republic, where disappointment with President Milos Zeman's confrontational style is widespread, Pavel has found enough support for his campaign. In the opinion polls, he was the clear favorite until the announcement of the candidacy of the oligarch and ex-prime minister Andrei Babis. 

Second round of former communists

Pavel, who tried to present himself as an independent, apolitical candidate during the election campaign, showed great understanding of military and international issues. “I learned diplomacy at the head of NATO, when I had to try to reach an agreement between the 30 member states,” Pavel said in a TV duel on the Nova TV channel. Calm and dignified, Pavel won over many Czechs with his manliness, decisive demeanor and fondness for powerful motorcycles. And not least because of his visual resemblance to the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrique Masaryk (1850-1937).

Ex-Prime Minister Andrej Babis had to admit defeat in a duel with ex-General Petr Pavel

With a lead of tens of thousands of votes over Andrei Babis, Pavel advanced to the second round. He was supported by third-place finisher in the first ballot, 44-year-old economist Danuse Nedrudova, and other pro-Western candidates. Victory seemed certain to him. But some voters had a problem with the ex-general's communist past. “This is a slap in the face to all victims of the communist regime,” well-known musician, dissident and former human rights minister Michael Kocab told Czech Radio.

Fears that such a stance would keep large numbers of pro-democracy voters out of the runoff ultimately proved unfounded. Just like the attempt by Babis, who claimed before the second round that Pavel would lead the Czech Republic to war while he, Babis, would ensure peace in Ukraine. It didn't help the former prime minister, who was repeatedly accused of collaborating with the communist secret service.

Thanks to a voter turnout of over 70 percent, unprecedented in the Czech Republic, Pavel was able to secure a majority in the entire country, with the exception of parts of the former Sudetenland near the border with Germany. 

Pavel: “I don't see any winners and losers”

Pavel said his first priority would be to unite a nation divided by elections. “I don't see any electorate winning or losing in this country. Values ​​like truth, dignity, respect and humility have triumphed. I am ready to return these values ​​not only to the castle, but also to our republic through my service,” said Pavel.  

Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova came directly to his campaign headquarters on the evening of the election. “With you, the hope that decency and truthfulness can be a strength has won,” she congratulated Pavel. The Czech Republic and Slovakia separated peacefully 30 years ago, the former Czechoslovakia has been part of history since December 31, 1992. Relations between the two countries are good. Caputova and Pavel have announced that they will soon visit the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv together.

Pavel was the clear choice of the youngest Czech voters in particular. “One of the reasons for Petr Pavel's success was that he managed to get so many young voters to the polls, including those who initially voted for Danusa Nerudova,” said Pavel Maskarinec, a political scientist at Jan-Evangelista -Purkyne University in Usti nad Labem, opposite DW. With Petr Pavel, a clearly pro-European, pro-Western and pro-Atlantic politician won despite his short-term communist past. 

Pavel Maskarinec is a political scientist at Jan Evangelista Purkyne University in Usti nad Labem

68-year-old Andrej Babis congratulated Pavel on his victory. As for his political future, the oligarch, who remains MP and leader of the opposition party ANO, made an enigmatic statement: “I wish you a world without babis. Forget babis. Try to live without babis. Stop, in the morning waking up hating babies and going to sleep hating that.” The experts see a withdrawal of the billionaire from politics as unlikely. The ANO movement is now the strongest party in polls and has a chance of winning the parliamentary elections in three years.