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Czechs vote for pro-EU retired NATO general for president

In a relief for EU and NATO leaders, Petr Pavel will become the Czech Republic's next president after he trounced his rival, former prime minister and billionaire Andrej Babis, over the weekend.

(CN) — The Czech Republic's turn toward a pro-NATO and pro-Western stance was consolidated over the weekend with the election of a retired NATO general as the next president.

Petr Pavel won in a landslide Saturday in a runoff against Andrej Babis, a popular but divisive former prime minister and billionaire denounced by critics as a corrupt, pro-Russian and populist politician.

Pavel will replace Milos Zeman, a highly problematic figure known for his anti-gay and anti-immigrant statements, friendliness toward China and Russia and public displays of drunkenness.

The Czech president's role is largely ceremonial, but the head of state also serves as the commander in chief of the Czech military. Pavel is expected to make supporting Ukraine a priority. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy immediately called to congratulate Pavel and the new Czech president plans to visit Kyiv after he takes office in March.

Pavel took more than 58% of the vote, the most ever in a presidential election in the Czech Republic, also known as Czechia. He becomes the country's fourth president and is being hailed as someone who can bring normalcy back to the Prague Castle, the residence of the president.

“Values like truth, dignity, respect and modesty have won. I am ready to return these values not only to the Prague Castle but also to our republic through my service,” Pavel said.

Pavel has no political experience and spent four decades in the military. Coming from a military family, Pavel's military career began in the 1980s when Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet bloc.

In the Czechoslovak armed forces, he led an operation to evacuate French soldiers in 1993 during the Croatian War of Independence. He rose through the ranks to become a four-star general. In 2014, he was elected chairman of the NATO Military Committee, the first chairman from a former Warsaw Pact country.

During the campaign, Babis tried to win votes by calling Pavel a warmonger who would lead Czechs into war. During a televised debate, Babis even said he would not send Czech troops to defend Poland and Baltic states if they were attacked by Russia, a policy position that contradicts the mutual defense article of the NATO alliance. Babis was forced to walk back his statement.

The defeat leaves the future of Babis and his party, the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), very much in doubt following their loss in the October 2021 parliamentary elections. ANO was narrowly defeated by a three-party, center-right coalition known as Together.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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