Czech Presidential elections: Eight condenders, three favourites, two days of voting

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By David Hutt
Presidential candidates pose fro a photo prior a political debate at the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
Presidential candidates pose fro a photo prior a political debate at the National Museum in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Czechs go to the polls on Friday and Saturday to vote for their next president. 

There are eight candidates in the running, and there will almost certainly be a second-round of voting later in the month as opinion polls suggest it’s neck and neck between former prime minister Andrej Babiš, retired army chief Petr Pavel, and former university head Danuše Nerudová.

Controversy has stalked each of the main candidates for months, and with around a quarter of voters still undecided after advance voting began, events this week could still tip the race.

Babiš, a billionaire populist who has recently toned down his anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric, was handed a last minute salvo when he was acquitted over a months-long corruption trial on Monday.

Pavel and Nerudová claim the respectable and liberal mantle, and hope to galvanise the centrist mass of voters who turfed Babiš out of office at the last general election in 2021, but their fates could be sealed at the last television debate on Thursday night.

In its latest survey, Median, a local pollster, puts Pavel in the lead with 29.5%, some three percentage points ahead of second-placed Babiš. But Ipsos, another polling group, has Babiš ahead by 0.8 percentage points.

In both polls, former university rector Nerudová trailed a little behind the two men, but she was well ahead of six other candidates who each had less than 5%.

Since none of the candidates are likely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, a second-round runoff later in the month between Babiš and Pavel seems the most probable outcome, according to Vladimíra Dvořáková, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

But Nerudová, 43, and popular with younger voters, still stands a chance of becoming the Czech Republic’s first female and youngest-ever head of state, Dvořáková added.

AFP
Candidate in the Czech Presidential elections Danuse Nerudova takes part in the presidential debate on Czech TV on January 08, 2023 in PragueAFP

Nerudová was leading some opinion polls in November and had presented a squeaky-clean image, but she has seen her support fall away somewhat since Mendel University, where she was the youngest-ever rector, launched an investigation into the validity of doctorates being awarded to foreign students under her watch.

She has also faced questions about her competency as rector as well as her lack of political experience, since she has never held elected office before.

Despite that, she has built a “highly effective and sustained campaign,” as well establishing herself a “as symbol of change, renewal and modernity despite, or perhaps because of, having limited political or diplomatic experience,” Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London, told Euronews.

“Our country was managed as a company for eight years,” Nerudová said in a recent speech, referencing a comment made by Babiš, who declared he would run the Czech Republic like a company after becoming prime minister in 2017.

“But our country cannot be managed like a company, and by the way, not even like a military unit,” she added, in a potshot at her other rival Pavel, who recently served as chair of NATO’s Military Committee

“Our country needs to be managed like a family,” she stated.

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Candidate in the Czech Presidential elections former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army Petr Pavel takes part in the presidential debate on Czech TV on January 08, 2AFP

Pavel, the former military chief, has similarly been stalked by controversy over his background in the Czechoslovak military during the communist era.

Before that system collapsed in 1989, Pavel was a party member of the Communist Party, something he readily concedes, saying this was required of anyone who wanted to move up the military ranks at that time.

Yet he has faced accusations, including by former colleagues, that he was closer to the communist authorities than he now admits. Some have even alleged that he was trained to spy on NATO countries, which he denies.

A major proponent of NATO and his country’s support for Ukraine in their war against Russia, Pavel was asked by a local journalist last year whether, as a Czechslovak soldier, he would have gone to war against NATO countries in the event of the Cold War turning hot.

“A soldier defends his country and the people who live in it,” he responded.

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Presidential candidate and former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis looks on during a press conference in Pruhonice, Czech Republic on January 9, 2023AFP

Hard-to-lay-rest accusations that Babiš was a secret service collaborator during the Czechoslovak communist era has also resurfaced during this campaign.

With a deal of irony, Babiš, the person most dogged by scandal, was given a helping hand this week.

Claims of corruption have circled him for years, including during his stint as prime minister between 2017 and 2021. Before entering politics in 2011, the billionaire built his Agrofert company during the rumbustious first days of post-socialism into one of the country’s largest conglomerates.

But he was accused of removing his "Stork Nest” farm from Agrofert’s holding company so it could become eligible for millions of euros worth of European Union subsidies.

A trial was launched by state prosecutors late last year. But on January 9, just five days before the polls open, Babiš and a business associate were acquitted, a turnaround that may give him a slight bump in the polls, analysts said.

Afterwards he flew off to Paris to have a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, a decision that had some Czech media outlets questioning Macron's judgment. 

“These images may help him look like a respected leader, statesman and businessman, which Babiš needs to make up for his lack of oratory skills and stigmatised reputation,” said Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute.

Babiš claims the trial was a political witch hunt, and prosecutors could still appeal the verdict. And the local trial was separate from an earlier European Commission audit that found Babiš, when prime minister, had breached conflict of interest rules and influenced the allocation of subsidies to the business conglomerate he built.

The current Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, has insinuated that Babiš is only running for president in order to gain the immunity it confers.

Despite scandal, as well as the fact that Babiš rarely shows up in parliament these days -- even though his ANO party is the largest opposition group -- but that hasn’t put off a loyal core of supporters, many of whom benefitted from his five years as prime minister.

“They are mostly older people who have built up a very strong relationship with Babiš. His government has generously increased pensions in the past. He speaks a very folksy language,” Lubomír Kopeček, a political science professor at Masaryk University, said.

Surprises, surprises

It seems there will be a fairly even battle between the leading candidates. But polls have been wrong before.

At the last legislative election in 2021, almost all predicted that Babiš’ ANO party would win the popular vote, which it didn’t, and underestimated by several percentage points the popularity of the victorious SPOLU alliance, a three party grouping that ran an anti-Babiš campaign with another alliance.

“It would not surprise me if there was a surprise,” Hanley of University College London said.

One could be that Nerudova overhauls Pavel to challenge Babiš in the second round. Much depends on the last debate of the campaign, held on NOVA TV on Thursday evening.

Nerudova has been on the back foot in recent weeks, but she is a “better TV performer and communicator than Pavel, which may help her provided she can avoid being pinned down by awkward questions when she can sometimes appear brittle and defensive,” Hanley said.

It will also be the first television debate that Babiš participates in, which could swing things either way for the former prime minister whose oratory skills are often questioned.

A far greater surprise would be if Babiš fails to make it through to the second-round.

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Candidates in the Czech Presidential elections at a TV debate in Prague, 8 January 2023AFP

Some pundits think that Jaroslav Bašta, a far-right candidate who’s in fourth place on 7% of the vote, according to the Median poll, could perform better than expected and steal some votes away from Babiš.

The former prime minister is close to figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who campaigned alongside him at the 2021 general election.

Babiš has criticised the amount of support the Czech Republic provides Ukraine’s military and to Ukrainian refugees, and as prime minister he was a frequent gadfly to Brussels, clashing over numerous issues.

According to Kostelka, it isn’t unheard of in the history of Czech election campaigns for someone to leak a last-minute kompromat, a juicy bit of scandal, and any fresh mudslinging could throw voters off course.

But if it is to be Babiš against Pavel or Nerudová, analysts reckon either of the latter two stands the better chance of victory at a second-round ballot later in the month.

Both Pavel and Nerudová represent the anti-Babiš vote that turned the 2021 general election; both are endorsed by the ruling SPOLU coalition; and both claim to represent the country’s pro-West, liberal democratic history.

Pavel is pro-EU and, obviously for a former NATO chief, is supportive of the military alliance. He’s fairly left-wing on economic policy and supports some progressive ideas. Nerudová says many of the same things. Their supporters would likely swap allegiance to the other if either second-round faces Babiš in the second round.

How much power do Czech presidents wield?

Darko Vojinovic/AP
Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman speaks during a press conference after a meeting with his Serbian counterpart, September 2019Darko Vojinovic/AP

Czech presidents, as head of state, are supposed to fulfil a mostly ceremonial role. But outgoing president Miloš Zeman -- who must step down as he’s now served a two-term limit, and who has been in very bad health since last year -- has been far more active than his predecessors.

He was a key conduit for Chinese and Russian interests in the country, has clashed with intelligence services over whether Russia was behind an explosion at a Czech military depot in 2014, and has frequently waded into politics by threatening to veto progressive legislation.

Pavel has stated that, if president, he would not veto any law that permits same-sex marriage, unlike Zeman who last year stated he would.

Many Czechs will be glad to see the back of Zeman, who is known for making allegedly homophobic and racist comments, as well as his past fondness for an alcoholic tipple.

Zeman’s departure will also embody recent transformations in Czech politics.

As leader of the once powerful Social Democratic party (ČSSD), he was president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1996 until 1998, when he became prime minister for a four-year stint. Out of frontline politics for a decade, he returned as president in 2013.

During much of the 1990s and 2000s, Czech politics swung between a traditional left-right split: the ČSSD on one side, and the centre-right Civic Democratic party (ODS), led by Zeman’s main rival, the now 81-year-old Václav Klaus, on the other. Klaus served as president between 2003 and 2013.

But politics is now far more volatile. Prime Minister Fiala’s ODS is the main entity in the ruling five-party coalition, but it depends on the support of its partners, some newcomers to the scene. Babiš ANO, which was only formed in 2011, became the single largest party at the last legislative election.

At that ballot in 2021, ČSSD failed to win any seats in parliament for the first time ever, as did the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, another political stalwart of the post-socialist era.

According to some in Czech media, this month’s presidential contest is one between the adherents of the country’s liberal democratic past -- Pavel and Nerudová -- and a new variant of populist illiberalism in Babiš.

Babiš’ defeat at the 2021 legislative election was seen by many as a victory for the Czech Republic’s liberal democratic mainstream. 

Another loss this month would cement its place.