Ex-NATO general elected president in Czechia

General Petr Pavel, photoed when Chair of NATO’s Military Committee

Leads with calls for escalation in new cold war against China and Russia

By Dennis Barton and Paul Taylor

Petr Pavel swept to a landslide victory in the Czech Presidential elections, decisively beating his rival Andrej Babiš. Pavel made clear that his priority is to support the US agenda in Europe, adopting a hostile stance towards China and escalating the supply of NATO weapons to Ukraine.

Social Dissatisfaction

The presidential elections took place against the background of a flailing Czech economy. GDP shrank during the last two quarters of 2022, with inflation at around 16%. The country is currently undergoing the steepest fall in real wages in the OECD, with the average Czech suffering a fall in real wages of over 8% in 2022. It was in these conditions that huge demonstrations took place last year against falling living standards and the costs of supporting the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

Decline of the left

Despite these outbursts of social protest, some led by the trade unions, the marginalisation of the left has meant that parties and politicians from the right now dominate Czech politics. Babiš and his ANO (Yes) party rose to power in 2013 on the back of the economic fallout from the global financial crisis. He led a minority government from 2017, supported by the Czech Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. In the 2021 elections, both parties failed to enter parliament. The ANO party was replaced by a coalition government of right-wing parties led by PM Petr Fiala, a self-declared admirer of Margaret Thatcher.

Electoral support for the left continues to wane. The left has struggled to articulate a coherent, united, and independent progressive alternative to the right. The Czech Communist and Social Democratic parties failed to field a candidate in the 2023 presidential election. Josef Stredula, chair of ČMKOS [the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions], dropped his candidacy for Czech president in favour of a Danuše Nerudová, backed by the centre-right Spolu alliance. The membership of the Social Democrats has fallen to around 9000 and the Communist party to about 28000. 

The billionaire Andrej Babiš presented himself as the standard bearer of the country’s poorest and most marginalised people. However, undermined by a series of corruption allegations, he could not harness the dissatisfaction within Czech society, leading to Pavel winning by the largest margin in any presidential election during the past four decades.

A NATO President

Pavel served as Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed forces from 2012 to 2015 and became Chair of the NATO Military Committee between 2015 and 2018. With such a record, it is little wonder that Washington has welcomed him so enthusiastically. 

Pavel’s victory consolidates the pressure to put the interests of the US ahead of the living standards of the Czech population. The Czech government has already committed to raising its military spending from 1.4% of GDP in 2021 to 2% in 2025. For the US-led west, the relative unreliability of the outgoing president Miloš Zeman and ex-PM Andrej Babis has now ended.

In his first international interview since being elected, Pavel called for Ukraine to be allowed to join NATO at the end of the current conflict. He also believes that NATO should increase military aid to Ukraine, saying: ‘When it comes to conventional weapons, I really can see no reason for any limits. Ukraine cannot fight a tough opponent like this without armoured technologies, unmanned aerial vehicles, artillery and longer-range rockets, but maybe also supersonic aircraft“.

In contrast to his predecessor Zeman, although in line with the present Czech government, Pavel will entrench the government of Czechia’s hostile policy towards China. He became the first elected head of a European state to speak with the president of Taiwan, claiming during the election campaign that he would visit the island. The current absence of formal diplomatic relations between Czechia and the Chinese province underscores the provocative nature of his actions.

Elaborating on his hawkish views on China, he said in an interview with the Financial Times: “This is what we have to be very clear about: China and its regime is not a friendly country at this moment, it is not compatible with western democracies in their strategic goals and principles.”

Guns not Butter

Although the president’s power is limited within Czechia’s parliamentary democracy, Pavel’s victory is a significant victory for the pro-US new Cold War offensive. His pro-war, anti-negotiation voice will be enthusiastically promoted inside the EU and other international arenas by supporters of a US-led unipolar world. Inside Czechia, the drive to intensify a pro-US global agenda will further deteriorate the living standards of the Czech population as increasing resources will be shifted to supporting the military and severing economic ties with China, including its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. In these conditions, it is extremely unlikely that Pavel will live up to his election promise of bringing ‘order and calm’ to Czechia.

Image used: Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Military Committee Gen. Petr Pavel, by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.