Retired NATO general Petr Pavel defeated a billionaire former prime minister in an election run-off on Saturday to become the fourth president of the Czech Republic.
Pavel, a former paratrooper, won 58.3 percent of votes while Andrej Babis scored 41.7 percent, according to final results published by the Czech Statistical Office.
“I would like to thank those who voted for me and also those who did not but came to the polls, because they made it clear they honoured democracy and cared about this country,” Pavel said after the results showed his victory.
“I can see that values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility have prevailed in this election,” he added.
The 61-year-old Pavel will in March 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.
Turnout in the EU and NATO member country of 10.5 million people was unusually high, topping 70 percent following an acrimonious campaign marked by controversy.
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.
Pavel said he was ready to start tackling rifts in the society caused by the campaign, recent crises including the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, and Zeman’s divisive politics.
“This has to change, and you have helped me to take the first step on the path towards this change.”
Babis, who served as Czech prime minister from 2017-2021, congratulated Pavel and admitted defeat.
“I would like to wish him to be the president of all citizens of the Czech Republic, to be sensitive to their problems and fight for the interests of the Czech Republic,” he added.
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.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was looking forward to “deepening the close cooperation” between the two neighbours.
“I am impatiently awaiting a personal meeting and wish you a lot of strength and success,” he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted his congratulations and invited Pavel to Paris.
“Our countries are linked by profoundly European values and by our support to Ukraine,” he added.
Pavel will be the fourth Czech president since the country’s independence following its peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993, four years after former Czechoslovakia shed four decades of totalitarian communist rule.
Slovak President Zuzana Caputova travelled to Prague to congratulate Pavel in person, saying she was happy that “in our region and in Europe, there is a new head of state who honours democratic values”.
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.
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 if it meets entrance criteria.
“I believe it is entitled to get the same chance we got in the past,” he said.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in a tweet welcomed Pavel’s “strong commitment to our European values”.
“Your experience in security, defence and foreign relations will be precious to maintain and strengthen Europe’s unity in support of Ukraine,” she added.
Prague-based political analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP he expected a “strongly pro-Western” stance from Pavel.
“There will be none of that ambivalence we had with Milos Zeman,” he said.