Retired army chief of staff general Petr Pavel narrowly won the first round of the Czech presidential election with 35.4% ahead of the populist leader and billionaire Andrej Babis who collected 35%.
Pavel is the second round favourite and the opposition leader Babis is expected to launch a fierce campaign portraying Pavel as an anti-social candidate backed by the government.
Babis attacked his rival right away for his military background in the speech he delivered after the results were announced, signaling a campaign during which Czech support for Ukraine and the impact of the energy crisis are expected to be contested. The runoff vote is going to take place in less than two weeks on January 27-28.
“One army chief of staff is sufficient, we don’t need two of them,” Babis slammed Pavel during his speech on Saturday and added that the only president in Europe who was “a communist intelligence agent” is Russia's Vladimir Putin. Babis alleged that Pavel was educated in the Soviet Union then made it to top posts in Nato, suggesting he is a career opportunist.
To this day Pavel is the only military officer from the former eastern bloc countries to have held the post of chairman of the Nato Military Committee. He was criticised during the campaign for his years in the pre-1989 communist military, which included training in an intelligence course, but he was not educated in the Soviet Union.
“I like challenges,” Pavel told the media after the results were announced. “In a way, I have been looking forward to having Andrej Babis as a contender if I progress to the second round because he is a contender who motivates me.” He added he wished for Danuse Nerudova to make it to the second round as that way people would have been certain there wouldn't be a populist as head of state.
Pavel has been warning that Babis epitomises the oligarchisation of politics in Central Europe, a message he reiterated during a December meeting with journalists and civil society representatives in Budapest.
Babis said in a televised debate at a private television station last week he wants to hold a peace summit at Prague Castle to end the war in Ukraine in what many observers describe as his effort to depict Pavel as “a warmonger”.
Babis was expected to launch a fierce campaign to discourage Czechs from voting for Pavel, who remains the second-round favourite and is endorsed by most of the unsuccessful candidates. The opposition leader aims to tap into the discontent of ordinary Czechs with the elevated costs of living resulting from the energy crisis and the highest average annual inflation since the establishment of independent Czechia in 1993.
Pro-Babis posters along the country’s motorways read “I won’t drag Czechia into a war. I am a diplomat. Not a soldier. Babis the President”, and on Tuesday there will be a vote of no confidence initiated by Babis’ ANO party.
The vote against the centre-right five-party-coalition led by Petr Fiala will be easily thwarted by the coalition’s majority of 108 in the Chamber of Deputies of 200, and is largely seen as Babis’ party strategy to boost his own chances. The leader of ANO deputies Alena Schillerova claims that ANO, which with 72 deputies is the strongest party formation in the parliament, chose to file the motion after the ruling coalition prevented parliamentary discussions on “real issues of the people”.
Babis also attacked Pavel for being “a pro-government candidate” even though Pavel ran as an independent, collecting 81,000 signatures from Czech citizens to secure his nomination. The SPOLU bloc of right-wing and conservative parties, which represents a larger part of Fiala’s coalition, did not nominate a candidate but expressed support for Pavel as well as for former Mendel University rector Nerudova and senator Pavel Fischer.
Analysts point out that Babis’ chance of victory is through alienating voters of unsuccessful candidates Nerudova, Fischer, Marek Hilser and Karel Divis, who all endorsed Pavel for the second round and who took more than 25% combined in the first round. Nerudova came third with 13.93% but her result is seen as a disappointment after several polls in December indicated she could win the vote.
There was a record 68.24% voter participation in the first round. The role of the president is largely ceremonial although the office's powers include the appointment of Czech central bank management or co-appointment of judges. The outgoing President Milos Zeman has repeatedly stepped beyond presidential powers and also meddled with cabinet appointments. Zeman endorsed Babis, who has also been his political ally, as his successor saying he is better equipped for the office, and repeated Babis’ talking points against Pavel.