(Bloomberg) --

A former NATO general pledging unwavering support for Ukraine will become the next Czech president after securing a convincing victory over a combative former billionaire prime minister. 

Petr Pavel, who once served as NATO’s highest-ranking military officer, declared victory after winning 57.9% with 98% of polling districts counted, according to data published by the Czech Statistics Office. Andrej Babis, a chemicals, farming and media magnate known for his clashes with the European Union, had 42.1%. 

“I’m confident that what we have in common is much more than the divisions,” Pavel told supporters in Prague on Saturday in a plea for unity. 

The victory may bolster western unity against Russian aggression with an EU leader who backs weapons deliveries to Ukraine and EU sanctions against the Kremlin. It also marks a defeat against a populist former premier who had a contentious relationship with the EU and the Czech political establishment.

Pavel will succeed President Milos Zeman, a polarizing figure who antagonized EU allies with support for Vladimir Putin — until he invaded Ukraine — and China. 

“A civic candidate has won,” Prime Minister Petr Fiala said earlier. “The values that he represented won and that’s a very important message in these internally and economically complicated times.”

Pavel, 61, has highlighted his background in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a guarantee of the nation’s Euro-Atlantic allegiance. The former member of special forces ran as an independent and promised to take a less confrontational stance on domestic issues. 

Filling Havel’s Shoes

A newcomer to Czech politics, Pavel has also been forced to answer questions about his membership in Czechoslovakia’s communist party in the 1980s and aspirations to join the Warsaw Pact nation’s military intelligence. Pavel has called his party affiliation in his youth a mistake, for which he’s compensated by serving with NATO militaries. 

But his image as a cool and unflappable leader helped him to gain traction among Czech voters. Pavel served in the United Nation’s peacekeeping force during the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia in early 1990s. His unit once rescued more than 50 French soldiers trapped under mortar fire, earning him the French Croix de Guerre. 

An office once held by the late communist dissident Vaclav Havel in the decade after the Czech Republic split from neighboring Slovakia in 1993, the Czech president has sway in forming a cabinet and appointing central bankers and judges. 

“The presidential office will be held by a person who is unequivocally pro-western and who won’t pursue the ambivalent policies of his predecessor,” Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague who once served as an adviser to Havel, said by phone.

Most power resides in the government, headed by Prime Minister Fiala, who endorsed Pavel. But Zeman’s two five-year terms were marked by repeated attempts to bend constitutional conventions to carve out more influence for himself, and disparaging remarks about Muslim immigrants and LGBTQ communities. 

Pavel is a supporter of euro adoption, a rarity among the Czech decision makers, who consider the common European currency a risk to the export-oriented $300 billion economy. 

Babis, 68, sought a return to high office after he was voted out as prime minister in a 2021 election. One of the richest Czechs, he has assailed Fiala’s government for not helping citizens in the worst cost-of-living crisis in three decades.

As prime minister, Babis embraced an anti-immigration agenda and became a close ally of Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban. Babis also gained a reputation for clashing with the EU over migration policies and conflict-of-interest allegations regarding his companies. 

(Updates with Pavel declaring victory from second paragraph.)

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