A new president of the Czech Republic is being sought
The main cast plus three supporting players and six auxiliary players
Parliamentary democracy characterises the Czech Republic, with the government and the president sharing executive authority. Any citizen over the age of 40 who is a registered voter is eligible to run for president. To qualify for the election, a candidate needs the endorsement of at least 20 deputies or 10 senators, or a petition signed by at least 50,000 residents. This means that anyone, regardless of their political experience, can run for president if they are either already famous or have a strong campaign team.
As early as last fall, it was clear that three candidates, including actual contenders Andrej Babi (candidate of the ANO party, party leader and former prime minister), Danue Nerudová (independent candidate, economist and former rector of Mendel University in Brno), and Petr Pavel would be running for president (independent candidate, former general of the Czech army). All three candidates are polling at or above 20%, and while bookmakers are confident that Petr Pavel will win, the race has been tight throughout. Another third of voters are unsure which candidate they will support, according to the polls.
Nobody gives any of the other six candidates a chance of winning, though, because they are seen as mere supporting cast members to these three. This was also clear in the televised debate between the top three candidates for president and the other six official candidates (Babi did not participate) that was broadcast on public television ( resp. duo). Thus, the wave of anger became a boycott, with few people willing to ask questions or give the top three any more airtime than they already had (duo).
Legal battles, a communist past, or diploma mills?
In the Czech Republic, it is customary for the flaws of the leading candidates to be highlighted in the media just before an election. In addition, none of the top three have a pristine record. Two of the three contenders have communist backgrounds. Petr Pavel’s time spent furthering his education at what was then known as the General Staff Intelligence Administration and his subsequent membership in the Communist Party have both drawn criticism. It’s important to remember that serving in military intelligence wasn’t a repressive arm of the regime when these people were serving in the Czechoslovak People’s Army. Despite the existence of ten separate documents attesting to Andrej Babi’s collaboration with the StB (the secret police services of Czechoslovakia), he continues to deny his past.
But Babi has a long trail of scandals following him. Babi has been on trial in recent months for allegedly stealing CZK 50 million in subsidised funds intended for the “Stork’s Nest” development in Central Bohemia. Four days before the first round of elections, on January 9, a judge acquitted Babi because of poorly drafted charges. But the French Serious Crime Investigation Agency (PNF) is still looking into Andrej Babi’s purchase of property in France on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion. But Babi’s voters appear to be unconcerned about these scandals, despite widespread knowledge of them for years.
Unlike the gentlemen, Danue Nerudová does not have the spectre of a communist past hanging over her head (she repeats this accordingly often). She couldn’t possibly understand what was going on during the Velvet Revolution; she was only 10 years old at the time. However, she must also take criticism in stride. The National Accreditation Office for Higher Education (NAE) reports that during her tenure as rector of Mendel University in Brno, some international students in the Faculty of Economics enrolled for fewer than the required four years of study. Dissertations presented their own set of challenges as well. The cost of a doctorate in economics and management was around $25,000 EUR. Accreditation for the department has been threatened, which is causing concern among the faculty. Nerudová avoided criticism at first, but eventually she did a good job of explaining what had happened. The question now is whether or not this explanation came too late.
The most crucial issue in modern politics: Babiš
Andrej Babi was the only one of the three leading candidates who was already widely known and recognised by all Czechs, while Petr Pavel and Danue Nerudová had to work to get people’s attention. An emotional and divisive figure, he is the centre of much debate. He was raised as a favoured child of the regime, but he made the most of his opportunities, rose quickly in the ranks, and in the lawless 1990s launched successful businesses across a wide range of industries, particularly the agro-food industry. However, the corporate world no longer felt expansive enough, and in 2011, he established the political movement ANO 2011. (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens). He first described it as a “right-wing party with a social consciousness,” before redefining it as “a party that embraces all ideologies.” This does not change the fact that Babi is an opportunist populist, who gives a lot to the rich (including himself) and a little to the poor (just enough to get their votes).
Once upon a time, in 2013, the ANO joined the ruling coalition, and Babi took over as Minister of Finance. He was appointed by President Milo Zeman at the time, but lacked the required lustration certificate (a certificate about whether a person was a member of the StB or not). In just four years, Babi made a power pact with President Zeman, polarised Czech society, set off a downward trend in the home, and won over nearly all of the voters of the left coalition partner. After the 2017 elections, with the help of the Communist Party, he became the prime minister of a minority government.
This “crisis manager” (as he likes to call himself) has done more harm to society than just increase the national debt. Many have grown accustomed to Babi’s warped relationship with the truth and to the fact that he is friends with representatives of countries that do not practise democracy. They are unconcerned by his aggressive rhetoric and behaviour or his legal battles. Always, he uses his persuasive skills to sidestep Brussels’ regulations. His base of support is united by a shared loathing and terror of his opponent. Yet, in the real world, he never advances very far because of the reliance of his businesses on European subsidies. He is, therefore, not comparable to Hungary’s Orbán. His brand of populism never strayed from being realistic and nonideological. Ultimately, Czech democracy proved quite resilient, and the country’s institutions survived despite his best efforts to undermine them. Ultimately, his administration was no more than a weak minority rule. The Czech Republic did not turn into another Poland or Hungary under his leadership.
After years of Babi’s populism, the parties of the democratic bloc, which represent Václav Havel’s pro-Western course, finally won a seat in parliament in 2021, ushering in a new era. Many people believe that if Pavel or Nerudová were elected, the democratic values of the 1989 Velvet Revolution could be restored. But Babi has more at stake than the others because the presidency would grant him immunity from prosecution for five (and potentially ten) years.
Voters in the Czech Republic, a species
There has been a dramatic shift in the Czech electorate. In the past, elections were typically more predictable because they were decided by groups of loyal regular voters. This pattern has recently reversed, however, and more and more people are waiting until the eleventh hour, or even the polls themselves, to make their choices. That’s great news for municipal candidates in a presidential election, but it poses a serious challenge for the campaign’s public relations and marketing departments.
In this way, Andrej Babi has the largest and most dedicated voter base of the three leaders, which is comprised primarily of people with a primary education or a relatively low level of education (no high school diploma) and is heavily weighted toward those aged 60 and up. However, he also faces the most formidable opposition (more than half of the respondents would definitely not vote for him). With support from this wide swath of voters, he should easily advance to the next round, though his camp will have to work to win over any remaining sceptics or undecideds in the next stage of voting.
Conversely, Danue Nerudová and Petr Pavel have the backing of more than half of the electorate thanks to the expertise of their educated urban constituents. They obviously care about them and are willing to fight for them. Nerudová and Pavel, on the other hand, have billboards placed in the most heavily trafficked areas of Prague, greeting passers-by with smiles while Babi does not put much effort into his visual presentation there. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that both will advance to the next round.
Our favourite holiday treats
No one in the Czech Republic would likely volunteer an answer to the question “Who will be the next president?” One thing is certain, though: this election will have two rounds, making January a long and challenging month for the two candidates as they try to sway undecided voters and new potential voters. The stakes are high and every vote matters equally. Expect a flood of social media updates as a result. Posts about making Christmas cookies with the family were particularly popular among this year’s candidates. Weight loss advice columns could resume in the new year.