Czechs began voting on January 13 in the first round of a presidential election that is likely to end in a run-off in two weeks time between a liberal pro-Western candidate and populist billionaire and ex-premier Andrej Babis.
Opposition leader Babis has tried to paint the two leading independent candidates as representatives of the current centre-right governing coalition, which defeated him at elections in October 2021. He has tried to make the election a referendum on the government, calling it “anti-social” and blaming it for not doing enough to help ordinary people cope with the ongoing cost of living crisis.
The government decided not to nominate a contender and has endorsed both former general Petr Pavel and former university rector Danuse Nerudova, partly out of a fear that choosing only one candidate could have resulted in that person becoming a lightning rod for discontent.
Eight candidates in all are standing in the first round of the election but only two will go forward to the run-off on January 27-28. According to polls, a quarter of voters are still undecided.
Babis has been boosted by being cleared in a long-running fraud trial this week, and is expected to make the run-off. The agro-chemicals tycoon also benefits from his huge fortune, his ANO party vehicle and his media empire, including two national dailies, Mlada Fronts Dnes and Lidove Noviny.
If Babis were to become the country’s non-executive president, he could try to sabotage the government and the country’s politics could become much more unstable ahead of the next general elections in 2025. His ANO party has already called another vote of no-confidence in the government, to take place next week as part of Babis’ campaign for the presidency.
According to final polls at the start of this week, Pavel is likely to meet Babis in the run-off and would defeat him, an impression reinforced by the former general’s calm and confident performance in the three main TV debates this week.
In the final television debate on January 12, Pavel and Nerudova trained most of their attacks on Babis – who had refused to participate in previous debates – notably for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and for bequeathing the country a huge government budget deficit.
During the debate, Nerudova criticised the Czech National Bank for refusing to raise interest rates further to choke off inflation, while Babis argued that further rises of interest rates would be a catastrophe for Czechs and that “young families can’t buy an apartment”.
Nerudova has taken a series of reputational hits in the past month – which include reported cases of PhDs being awarded at express speeds for foreign students who paid special fees while she served as rector of Mendel University in Brno – and her challenge seems to have faded.
Pavel benefits from being a much less divisive figure than the former premier. He has also tried to create some distance between his campaign and the government, criticising it for not doing enough in the cost of living crisis.
Pavel is the standout candidate. Having been Czech chief of staff and the highest ranking officer in the Nato command from a former Warsaw Pact state, he looks credible at handling the president’s foreign policy and ceremonial roles.
His slogan is “calm and order”, and his main message is that at a time when Russia is still attacking Ukraine, the country needs an experienced military man as head of state.
“[Pavel’s pitch] is that there is a lot to worry about in today’s world,” Professor Tim Haughton of Birmingham University told a University College of London webcast on the election this week. “[Therefore] we need an experienced and calm leader who would not spread chaos.”
Ukraine could become a key issue in the second round. Babis has criticised sanctions in the past and during the TV Nova debate on January 12 he said that, if elected, he would call for peace talks to be held in Prague between Russia and Ukraine.
Both Pavel and Nerudova have firmly supported Ukraine and the Western response. During the debate, Pavel said that Czechia does not have enough diplomatic clout to hold such a summit.
Babis portrays himself as the only experienced candidate of the three and has been promoting his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron this week to boost his argument of having high-level international contacts.
“If I become president I will organise a peace summit at Prague Castle,” Babis repeated on his Facebook profile, and in a clear response to Pavel, he added, “I would never underestimate the Czech Republic”.
Commentators including the civic platform Czech Elves, which monitors disinformation websites disseminating pro-Kremlin propaganda, have been warning that Czech cyberspace is being flooded with narratives of Pavel being depicted as a “warmonger”.
“Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine a number of people dissatisfied with the Czech support of Ukraine has been on the rise, which is in part fuelled by the energy crisis”, Czech Elves spokesperson Bob Kartous explained to bne Intellinews. “Babis is likely to play into this mood and can try to present himself as someone who allegedly pulls Czechia out of this conflict,” Kartous added.
Outgoing President Milos Zeman has endorsed Babis as his successor. The two were political allies when Babis was in the cabinet and they both rode a wave of anti-refugee hysteria which culminated in the 2015-16 “refugee crisis”.
Zeman, who has renounced his former close links with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, will end his second and final term in March.