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The Czech Republic Approaches a Presidential Election

A Test of Democratic Maturity

January 18, 2023
by
Pavel Havlicek
4 min read
On January 27–28, Czech voters will elect their country’s new president, choosing between former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and former army Chief of Staff Petr Pavel.

Pavel narrowly led in the first round of voting, 35.4 percent to Babiš’s 35 percent, and the campaigning for the second round is fierce. Many observers paint the election as a referendum not only on the former prime minister but also on the future of Czech illiberalism.

Voter turnout in the first round was more than 68 percent, the highest since the first direct presidential election in 2013. This and the level of public interest in the campaign reflected the high stakes after the end of President Miloš Zeman’s controversial ten-year tenure. His time in office was marked by his illiberalism, nationalism, xenophobia, and pro-China and pro-Russia positions.

The days until Czechs vote again will be stormy. Several of the candidates defeated in the first round have endorsed Pavel, while Babiš has adopted a new, aggressive approach. The former prime minister seems to have concluded that he cannot add to his first-round support without a strongly negative campaign.

Babiš has been highlighting Pavel’s communist past and comparing him to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pavel spent years preparing to enter the ranks of military intelligence during Communist Party rule, as Putin did. Babiš, though, was also a party member and has admitted to having collaborated with the secret service in communist times. Babiš’s electorate is indifferent to this, but Pavel’s past could unsettle some of his potential voters.

Another line of attack for Babiš is the performance of the current coalition government, which has overwhelmingly endorsed Pavel. As opposition leader, the former prime minister has been a strong critic and often unconstructive opponent of the government. The current socioeconomic situation could help Babiš, with rising inflation and a decreasing standard of living for much of society, both caused by the war in Ukraine. On this, Babiš will likely benefit from his reputation as a successful business figure and finance minister before his years as prime minister.

By contrast, little attention has been paid to the president’s constitutional powers. These include appointing Constitutional Court and Supreme Court judges, and Czech National Bank board members, who comprise an influential body for a country still outside the eurozone. Zeman often abused his powers, but Babiš has been diverting attention from this issue.

Foreign and security policy has become a hotly contested issue, with the two candidates having different outlooks. Babiš has tried to highlight his international credentials and connections. He has visited Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, his long-term friend and inspiration for negotiations within the EU. Like Orbán, Babiš is known for an anti-Brussels and sovereigntist stance. Babiš also went to France, where he met with the President Emmanuel Macron, whose party is in the same European Parliament political group as Babiš’s ANO. The visit was controversial because the former prime minister is being investigated for a money-laundering scheme involving investments in the property market in the south of France via suspicious hedge funds.

Pavel also went to Budapest, but he met representatives of civil society, academia, and the independent press. The aim was to position himself as a convinced democrat and supporter of liberal norms, in contrast to Babiš. Pavel could also play on his experience and contacts in NATO, where he served in the highest nonpolitical position, Military Committee chairman, and he could benefit from his detailed knowledge of defense and security matters in a time of war. This would also resonate well in the EU and the transatlantic alliance.

Babiš is calculating that the war in Ukraine is becoming more unpopular among voters. He has accused Pavel of being a military man wanting to drag the Czech Republic into the conflict rather than offering a peace proposal. Babiš has tried to present himself as a diplomat looking to end hostilities, even suggesting that, as president, he could organize a peace conference in Prague. Here, too, Babiš plays up his international contacts and competence while claiming Pavel lacks executive experience and knowledge of international affairs.

Foreign and security policy might also be the focus of a disinformation campaign against Pavel. There is precedent for this. Zeman’s 2018 opponent, Jiří Drahoš, was successfully smeared as a “welcomer” of refugees from the Middle East.

The presidential election’s outcome will show whether Czech society has become mature enough to overcome the illiberal tendencies of the Zeman years or if it is willing to tolerate the same for five more years under Babiš.

 

Pavel Havlicek is a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague and a former ReThink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in the preceding text are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.