Ex-NATO General and Ex-Prime Minister to Face Off in Czech Republic’s Presidential Race
PRAGUE — In an election more important for what it ends than what it will bring, the Czech Republic completed the first round of voting for a new president on Saturday, starting the eclipse of an eccentric, hard-drinking incumbent who often put himself at odds with the Czech government and European allies by reaching out to Russia and China.
With nearly all the votes counted, official results showed that none of the eight candidates running to replace President Milos Zeman, who is barred by term limits from running again, had won a clear majority. A runoff election will be held in two weeks between the top two finishers, both of whom favor closer relations with the West and the NATO alliance.
No matter which of the top two candidates — a former NATO general, Petr Pavel, who won just over 35 percent of the vote, and a billionaire former prime minister, Andrej Babis, who got around 35 percent — eventually triumphs, the departure of Mr. Zeman, the Czech president for the past decade, should put the country’s foreign relations back on an unambiguously pro-Western path.
The presidency is mostly ceremonial but Mr. Zeman used and, critics say, abused its limited powers to turn Prague Castle, the president’s grand official office, into an alternative foreign policy center focused on developing relations with the East rather than the West.
Just days before first-round voting started on Friday, Mr. Zeman held a video conference call with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who called on Prague to “actively promote” China’s relations with East and Central Europe, not something that is likely once Mr. Zeman formally steps down in March.
In an interview this week in Prague, the Czech foreign minister, Jan Lipavsky, who has often criticized China and whose appointment in 2021 Mr. Zeman tried unsuccessfully to block, said he looked forward to the post-Zeman era. “Of course, Zeman has a different view of certain areas and used to push quite heavily for more relaxed positions on Russia and China,” he said, adding that his departure should bring “a major new impulse” to Czech foreign policy.
“After 10 years there will be a new figure sitting in Prague Castle and I take this as a big opportunity,” Mr. Lipavsky said. His ministry’s imposing colonnaded headquarters sits just a few hundred yards from Prague Castle, a route strewn with political and personal minefields.
Otto Eibl, the head of the political science department at Masaryk University in the city of Brno, said the presidency, despite its restricted constitutional powers, carried special moral weight in the Czech Republic, in part because of the stature and international renown of Vaclav Havel, a writer who in 1989 became the first post-communist president of what was then Czechoslovakia.
“It is a ceremonial job but a symbol of something important for Czechs,” Mr. Eibl said, adding: “The Zeman era is over and regardless of who wins, the situation will change. He harmed Czech foreign policy. He was more open to the East, more open to Russia and to China.”
That Czechs consider the presidency important was reflected in a voter turnout of more than 68 percent in the first round.
The Czech government, headed by Prime Minister Petr Fiala, a center-right former academic, has been a robust supporter of Ukraine, providing Soviet-era T-72 tanks and other military hardware. But the government has had to constantly look over its shoulder at Mr. Zeman, who has backed his country’s policy on Ukraine but diverted attention from other foreign policy goals.
Appalled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zeman has in recent months curbed his earlier enthusiasm for close relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, while maintaining warm relations with Mr. Putin’s closest European friends, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, both authoritarian strongman leaders.
He has also lobbied hard against the Czech Republic following the Baltic States in taking a tough stand against China, despite the detention in China of his former special economic adviser, a mysterious Chinese energy tycoon, Ye Jianming.
In contrast to Mr. Zeman, the two presidential candidates who will face off in a second round of voting at the end of January both look west, rather than east, even though each started his career in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia and was a member of the Party.
A day after Mr. Zeman spoke with Mr. Xi, Mr. Babis, a billionaire tycoon who figured as an informant on the books of the Communist-era secret service in Slovakia, flew to Paris to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron. The Paris trip was widely seen as an effort to burnish his pro-Western credentials and fend of criticism from liberals that he will continue the eastward-leaning inclination of Mr. Zeman, a past political ally.
Unlike Mr. Orban in Hungary, a fellow populist with whom he has good relations, Mr. Babis has evinced no sympathy for Russia and, during his time as prime minister from 2017 to 2021, he presided over a dramatic deterioration of relations with Moscow, accusing Russian military intelligence of blowing up a Czech arms depot in 2014. Mr. Zeman said Russia’s responsibility had not been clearly established, which challenged the findings of Czech and Western intelligence services.
Mr. Babis’s rival in the runoff vote, Mr. Pavel, known as “the General,” also had close ties to the Communist system in the past but survived rigorous post-Communist vetting of his loyalties and rose to become chief of the Czech Army’s general staff before taking over as head of the NATO Military Committee.
Mr. Zeman, a rambunctious, old-school politician with a knack for connecting with ordinary people, delights in offending effete liberal sensibilities and conventional wisdom. He has frequently been written off as a has-been, particularly when he was hospitalized in 2021 with what seemed like a life-threatening illness. He has always bounced back.
But the election of a new president, Mr. Eibl said, means that “this really is the end of the Zeman era.”