Hollywood casting directors do not get to vote for European heads of state. But if they did, they would plump for Petr Pavel. Square-jawed and white-haired, the 61-year-old Czech looks every bit the airborne platoon leader turned top NATO general, then aspiring statesman: think Eisenhower or de Gaulle, special-ops variant. Mr Pavel’s countrymen also saw the appeal, handing the retired soldier a decisive 58% win in a run-off for the Czech presidency on January 28th. Even more enthused at Mr Pavel’s triumph were those Europeans fretting that populism had become an unstoppable force across the continent. The liberal, pro-EU Mr Pavel trounced Andrej Babis, a billionaire elite-bashing understudy of Donald Trump. It is but one election in a mid-sized European country. But it marks another blow for the narrative of European politics shifting inexorably to extremes.
The political story of the EU in the past two decades has been how populists have gatecrashed what used to be a cushy, mostly liberal, cartel. Elections in Europe once typically pitted centre-right candidates against centre-left ones. Since the turn of the century, but especially from about 2015, candidates from the post-fascist fringe and the still-Marxist one went from being marginal to central. The rise of populists variously inveighing against migrants, gays, globalisation, modernity and all that goes with it has shaken polities from Sweden to Italy, Denmark and Greece. On the continent every election now feels like a test of whether electorates still abide by the post-war centrist consensus, or whether once beyond-the-pale politicians like Marine Le Pen in France should get a shot at upending it. In places like Poland, Hungary and most recently Italy, the outsiders have prevailed.