Czechia's three-party Spolu coalition, which ousted the populist ANO party of billionaire Andrej Babis in last October’s general election, has endorsed three independent presidential candidates in the upcoming race for Prague Castle.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala, leader of Spolu [Together] and of the rightwing ODS party, together with the leaders of the Christian Democrats and TOP 09 announced at a press conference on October 4 that Spolu will not run its own candidate, an implicit acknowledgement of the coalition's failure to agree on one, as well as the shortage of time before the November 8 deadline for nominations.
Instead, Fiala pointed the centre-right coalition's voters to three already declared independent candidates: Chairman of the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee Pavel Fischer, former president of Mendel University Danuse Nerudova, and retired Nato commander and former chief of the Czech army Petr Pavel. Spolu parties have discussed the endorsement with the three candidates.
“I believe that every one of these [candidates] can exercise the presidential office in line with basic values which our parties hold,” Fiala told media at a press conference, and added that if Spolu nominated another candidate it would “decrease the chances that presidential office will be held by a person who respects these common values”.
Spolu politicians have admitted previously that endorsing just one candidate could be seen as a curse, for that person could become a target for voter anger over the soaring cost of living.
For this reason Spolu won’t recommend a single particular candidate but it plans to launch a support information campaign about values the president should upheld. There are some hundred days left before the first round of the presidential election scheduled for January 13 and 14 and the likely second round to be held two weeks later.
By November 8 candidates will either have to present a list of 50,000 signatures, a signed endorsement by 10 senators or 20 parliamentary legislators. So far the Pavel campaign team announced it has reached the 50,000 quorum and a number of other candidates claim to have reached it as well. Signatures will have to be verified by the interior ministry.
Spolu notably omitted Senator Marek Hilser from the list of endorsed candidates. Hilser is an independent and arguably the most pro-EU voice in the pool and polls place him higher than Fischer and close to Nerudova. Pavel is the election favourite together with the Babis, who has yet to confirm whether or not he is standing.
Babis said recently there are up to “four possible candidates” his ANO party could nominate, which included three high-profile ANO politicians, but he withheld the final name, fuelling speculations that Babis wanted to see ANO's performance in the municipal and Senate elections first.
ANO fared well in the municipal elections, registering victories in 8 of the 13 largest regional cities, but losing as expected in the capital Prague and the Moravian metropole Brno. It suffered defeat in the second round run-off of the Senate elections, however, as traditionally low voter turnout played into the hands of Spolu, whose voters are more committed in those contests. Voters opposed to the divisive Babis also tend to gang up against Ano candidates in run-offs. Spolu now holds 41 seats in the 81-member Senate.
Babis is currently leading opinion polls for the presidential election but he now looks more and more inclined to put forward one of his lieutenants, fearing defeat in any run-off against Pavel or another of Spolu's endorsed candidates, which could blight his image with his electorate.
General Pavel has kept some distance from Spolu, perhaps aware of Spolu’s faltering popularity in the national polls, which favour ANO and also point to a steady rise of the far right and anti-EU SPD, the second opposition party led by another businessman-politician, Tomio Okamura.
When Pavel announced his candidacy in September one of his key messages was that he is not “indifferent to the fact that in our country some people are more equal than others”.
Pavel has also appeared to be more open to euro currency adoption and backed marriage rights for everyone, something which socially conservative sections of Spolu staunchly oppose.
This conservative aspect of Spolu values could also be behind the decision not to endorse Hilser, the most progressive of the candidates. Hilser himself made it clear on Facebook that he did not ask for Spolu’s or any other party’s endorsement, citing his non-partisanship and his clear stance on criticising business interests in politics.
“I reject the influence of behind-the-scenes actors, which have been suffocating Czech politics since the 90s” wrote Hilser on Tuesday, and outlined “overpriced mobile data, manipulations with municipal property and public finances, debt business ties to politics, fatal delay in transformation of Czech energy co-responsible for the present high prices” as some of the key features of business dominance of Czech politics.
Voting in the first round may be further fragmented by the candidature of trade union boss Josef Stredula, who is close to the Social Democrats (CSSD), as well as entrepreneur Tomas Brezina and former chairman of the energy regulator’s office Alena Vitaskova.
The presidential race may well turn into a second round run-off between a Spolu-endorsed candidate such as Pavel and an ANO candidate, loosely resembling the rightwing and leftwing political battles of ODS and the once dominant CSSD characteristic of the first two decades of the country's post-1989 politics. ANO has now cannibalised the Social Democratic electorate, while the SPD has attracted voters from conservative hard left and pro-Kremlin Czech Communist Party. Both parties dropped out of parliament at the 2021 general election.