Czechs head to the polls on January 27-28 for presidential elections in which retired army general Petr Pavel is widely expected to emerge victorious. However, even if opposition leader and populist billionaire Andrej Babis loses the runoff vote, his campaign may leave behind a much more fraught and polarised political environment than seen in Czech politics to date.
Babis has tried to unite a fragmented anti-establishment and far-right electorate together with his ANO party electorate, which was defeated by the SPOLU bloc of centre-right parties by less than 1% of the popular vote in the last national elections in October 2021. Babis’ strategy may seem like an unlikely feat but a similar though less tense strategy saw him nearly come on top of the first round with a surprise 35% of the vote, just 0.4% behind Pavel.
Following Babis’ fierce attacks on Pavel that concentrated on his communist military past, some of which were fabrications, the Czech marketing professional association revoked the membership of Marek Prchal, who has been the architect of ANO's and Babis' political brand since ANO’s surprise entry into the national parliament in the autumn of 2013.
“The only border line [of political campaigns in Czechia] is what one is or is not willing to do,” Eva Lebedova, a researcher in political communication from the Palacky University in Olomouc told Czech Radio in response to a question on whether there are ways to regulate the ethical standards of political campaigns in Czechia.
Babis' campaign seems to have been reinforced with internet disinformation campaigns, linked to Russian servers. On January 26, less than a day ahead of the voting, fake emails appeared informing first of Pavel’s “death” and then that he is only seriously ill. Emails used real names from Pavel’s campaign team and were reported to the police as the campaign’s website came under cyberattack. Journalists were quick to point out that fake emails about Pavel’s death were sent from the Russian server Yandex.
Babis condemned the attacks but was quick to point out that he himself had been a victim of threats. “It is very unpleasant for me and my family,” he referred to reports of his wife receiving a bullet in an envelope.
Pavel quickly began to set things straight. “Yes, I live,” he tweeted, explaining that “I never thought that I will have to be writing this on social networks”. He added that the “anti-campaign has reached its peak, let's say a sharp no to this in the elections”, and urged his followers “to share” the message invoking the Czech national motto “truth prevails”.
Observers noted that Babis’ efforts to style himself as a “pro-people” and “pro-peace” candidate fighting against the cabinet and liberals backing it, may capitalise on the discontent with the energy crisis, although polls show that it won’t be enough to capture the presidential seat at the Prague Castle. Babis has tried to portray Pavel, a known supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Russian invasion, as a “warmonger” who will exercise presidential power in concert with the sitting cabinet.
“When a spiral of emotions in society is loosened up then this spiral will stay here even after the elections,” said Lebedova, adding that “the tension in society will stay”. Indeed, the final debate on Nova TV on January 26 was calmer but it is difficult to imagine that division in Czech society can be overcome anytime soon.
Moreover, the nearly one million votes for parties that did not cross the 5% threshold to enter the parliament are likely to remain an attractive target for powerful ANO party, which is already by far the largest party in the parliament. These non-parliamentary parties represent a mixture of anti-establishment, far right as well as left wing views.