Czech presidential elections: the oligarch or the general?

As Czechs prepare to return to the polls to elect a new president, Dr Seán Hanley reflects on the first round of voting and subsequent frontrunners, billionaire Andrej Babiš and retired general Petr Pavel.

On 13-14 January, Czech voters went to the polls in record numbers to choose a new head of state to replace two-term president, Miloš Zeman.  As expected, none of the eight candidates gained enough support to win outright, but two clear frontrunners emerged to contest a second, run-off round on 27-28 January: former Prime Minister and billionaire businessman Andrej Babiš, who leads the ANO movement – Czechia’s biggest political party – and independent retired general Petr Pavel, the ex-head of the Czech Army who served as a high-ranking NATO official in Brussels. Pavel narrowly topped the poll with 35.4 percent of the vote, with Babiš trailing closely on 34.99 percent.

At first glance, the result looks puzzling. Voters in one of post-communist Central Europe’s most socially liberal democracies have opted for an unlikely choice between an oligarch and a general.  Conventional party-political candidates and issues were largely absent from the campaign which centred on personalities, particularly the divisive figure of Babiš. Opponents see the billionaire ex-PM, who was acquitted of EU subsidy fraud in the long-running Storks Nest case mid-way through the campaign, as a corrupt populist with strong authoritarian leanings.

The contest also reveals underlying continuities in Czech politics. Originally elected on an anti-corruption platform and with promises to ‘run the state like a firm’, Babiš has long since shifted toward a loose social populism promising big public spending, generous pensions, and hikes in public sector salaries, allowing him to swallow up the electorate of Czechia’s once strong parties of the traditional left.

Voters in one of post-communist Central Europe’s most socially liberal democracies have opted for an unlikely choice between an oligarch and a general

This was amply demonstrated in the first-round. Babiš promised to ‘help people’ and fend off belt tightening or tax rises that the current centre-right government may resort to, to cope with Czechia’s strained post-Covid public finances. Analysis of first-round voting patterns confirm that Babiš’s vote was strongest in poorer regions and smaller localities with lower standards of living and educational attainment, and higher levels of unemployment and consumer debt.

Petr Pavel’s pitch to voters was blander. His political marketing sold him in conservative terms as a respectable and patriotic ex-soldier who could offer calm and steady leadership in troubled times. But his programme was a platitudinous offering, promising to bring people together, promote small business and protect the environment.  Although decorated for bravery under fire serving with Czechoslovak UN troops in Bosnia in 1993, Pavel’s style is more centrist military technocrat than gun-toting man of action. His most distinct appeal to voters was that, as president, he would play by the constitutional and legal norms that Babiš (and outgoing president Miloš Zeman) had so often bypassed or ignored.

Although one of three ‘democratic’ candidates recommended to voters by the governing centre-right coalition, Pavel stressed that he was an independent. His electoral support, however, was a mirror image of that of Babiš; concentrated in Prague, bigger cities and a belt of more prosperous districts, which are traditional electoral bastions of Czech centre-right and liberal parties.

A fading liberal vision

In many ways, the story of the first round was the rise and fall of liberal candidate Danuše Nerudová.  Nerudová,  an economist by training and rector of Mendel University, a technical university in Czechia’s second city, Brno, emerged from a host of minor candidates into a clear third place during the summer. By mid-December her momentum was such that she had caught up with two leading candidates and, according to some polls, even overhauled them. Commentators speculated that she might be on course to repeat the success of Zuzana Caputová in neighbouring Slovakia, who had come through the field to be elected that country’s first female president in 2019.

Although vague on specifics, Nerudová’s highly professional campaign projected her as a force for change who could ‘Restart Czechia’ as a more open and modern society, and she herself seemed a potentially powerful symbol of cultural and generational change. The Czech Republic is one of a few European countries never to have had a female prime minister or president. As the youngest candidate (at 43), Nerudová also avoided the usual battery of questions about moral and political compromises under the former one-party rule.

By contrast, both Pavel (as a junior officer) and Babiš (working abroad for a state trading company) had been Communist Party members in the 1980s, reflecting the need to conform politically to get ahead professionally, with Babiš facing additional accusations (which he vehemently denied, despite a court ruling) that he had acted as an informer for the communist-era secret police. Pavel presented his Party membership (and pro-forma, pro-regime declarations he had made) as an error that he regretted, while Babiš merely glossed over the issue.

Despite surging in the polls, Nerudová’s campaign began to unravel. Closer scrutiny suggested that, rather than being an up-and-coming public sector reformer, she had been a somewhat indifferent and ineffective university leader, failing to take decisive action against serious malpractice in an English-language PhD programme and advancing her academic career despite a patchy record of publication.

In the end, Nerudová’s 13.99 per cent first-round vote fell far below expectations. Voters seem to have rallied to Pavel as a stronger and safer challenger to Babiš. Pavel’s offer of calm, firm but moderate leadership in times of economic and geo-political uncertainty seems to have chimed better with the public mood than Nerudová’s upbeat message of change and new politics.

A polarised run-off

The odds are against Babiš in the second round. Despite first-round rivalries, Danuše Nerudová and two other eliminated candidates, Marek Hilšer and Pavel Fischer, immediately endorsed Petr Pavel, joining him at campaign events in the provinces drawing large and enthusiastic crowds. Although some anti-establishment voters who backed Nerudová may opt for Babiš, it seems likely that the bulk of their support will transfer to Pavel, suggesting a comfortable victory for the former general. Earlier polling suggested that he would win with up to 59 per cent of the vote in a run-off against Babiš. 

Record-high first-round turnout of 68.2 per cent may also leave Babiš struggling to bring extra voters to the polls in the run-off as currently Miloš Zeman successfully did in 2018. Statistical comparison with voting patterns in 2021 parliamentary elections suggests that Babiš may already have scooped the support of radicalised and frustrated voters, who previously backed smaller far left and far right parties or stayed away from the polls.

Babiš’s response has been to mount a strident no-holds-barred second-round campaign,  attacking Pavel as a representative of a right-wing ‘asocial government’ and, more oddly – on the strength of military intelligence training before 1989 – as a ‘communist intelligence agent’ who would cut a Putin-esque figure as president. Babiš’s main line of attack, however, has been to depict the former NATO general as a warmonger who would drag Czechia into war. Conversely, Babiš claims to be a diplomat standing for ‘peace’ and that as president, he would broker an end to the war via a conference at Prague Castle.

Although characteristically free of clear commitments, such rhetoric taps into the fears and frustrations of some of the Czech public who are sceptical of or hostile to the current government’s support for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, cueing more radical forms of disinformation via social media and chain emails.

A similar ‘peace’ strategy was deployed to rally voters in 2022  by Hungary’s illiberal prime minister Viktor Orbán. However, Babiš’s goal seems less to fire up his own base than to depress turnout and demobilise less committed parts of Pavel’s increasingly formidable looking electoral coalition enough to win a narrow victory.  So far, however, with polls predicting even higher second-round turnout, indications are that left-liberals and right-wing anti-communists alike prefer the ex-communist general to the ex-communist oligarch. As in the 2021 parliamentary elections, it seems that a majority of Czechs will opt for moderate, steady-as-you-go conservatism, safeguarding the country’s democracy,  postponing more future-oriented reform debates for another day.

Dr Seán Hanley is an Associate Professor in Comparative Central and East European Politics at UCL.

Photograph by Radek Kozák on Unsplash.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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