Prague, Czech Republic – Retired NATO general Petr Pavel beat billionaire former prime minister Andrej Babis in a presidential election run-off on Saturday, interim results showed.
Pavel, a former paratrooper, won 56.76 per cent of votes while Babis scored 43.23 per cent, with over 85 per cent of the vote counted, according to the Czech Statistical Office.
Turnout in the EU and NATO member country of 10.5mn people was unusually high at 70 per cent following an acrimonious campaign marked by controversy, death threats and a brazen hoax.
The 61-year-old Pavel will 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.
Pavel already beat Babis in the first round two weeks ago, scoring 35.4 per cent against 35 per cent for the former prime minister.
Since then, 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.
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 in the small town of Dobrichovice southwest of Prague on an overcast on Saturday morning, Irena Cihelkova told AFP the new president should serve the country well.
“He should be forthcoming and friendly, an asset for the country, and not make problems abroad like some other Czech statesmen,” she said.
Pavel will be the fourth president of the Czech Republic since it emerged as an independent state after a peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993, four years after 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 (2003-2013) and Zeman, whose final term expires in March.
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.
Pavel has also backed same-sex marriage and child adoptions by same-sex couples.
“I respect the principle of freedom and equality of all people under the law,” he said. “I also believe we are a tolerant society.”