Retired Czech general Pavel wins presidential election

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PRAGUE (Reuters) – Former army chief Petr Pavel won the Czech Republic’s presidential election on Saturday after a campaign featuring strong backing for NATO and the European Union and support for aid to Ukraine.

Pavel, a 61-year-old retired general running for office for the first time, was set to win more than 58% of the vote with nearly all voting districts having reported, defeating billionaire ex-premier Andrej Babis, a dominant but polarising force in Czech politics for a decade.

Pavel, who had campaigned as an independent and gained the backing of the centre-right government, conveyed a message of unity and calm in society when addressing his election headquarters at a Prague concert venue on Saturday as results showed he had won.

“Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won,” Pavel told supporters and journalists. “I am convinced that these values are shared by the vast majority of us, it is worth us trying make them part of our lives and also return them to the Prague Castle and our politics.”

Czech presidents do not have many day-to-day duties but they pick prime ministers and central bank heads, have a say in foreign policy, are powerful opinion makers, and can push the government on policies.

Pavel will take office in March, replacing outgoing Milos Zeman, a divisive figure himself over his two terms in office over the past decade who had backed Babis as his successor.

Zeman had pushed for closer ties with Beijing and also with Moscow until Russia invaded Ukraine, and Pavel’s election will mark a sharp shift.

Babis, 68, a combative business magnate who heads the biggest opposition party in parliament, had attacked Pavel as the government’s candidate. He sought to attract voters struggling with soaring prices by vowing to push the government do more to help them.

Babis and Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel on his victory on Saturday.

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The result of the election will only become official when published in a legal journal on Tuesday, but the outcome of the poll was already clear on Saturday.

Pavel has backed keeping the central European country of 10.5 million firmly in the European Union and NATO military alliance, and supports the government’s continued aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.

He is a backer of adopting the euro, a topic that successive governments have kept on the back burner, and supports gay marriage and other progressive policies.

A career soldier, Pavel joined the army in Communist times, was decorated with a French military cross for valour during peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and later rose to lead the Czech general staff and become chairman of NATO’s military committee for three years before retiring in 2018.

“I voted for Mr. Pavel because he is a decent and reasonable man and I think that the young generation has a future with him,” said Abdulai Diop, 60, after voting in Prague on Saturday.

Babis had campaigned on fears of the war in Ukraine spreading, and sought to offer to broker peace talks while suggesting Pavel, as a former soldier, could drag the Czechs into a war, a claim Pavel rejected.

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