Presidential election in the Czech Republic
Dirty election campaign with a good ending?

The President-elect of the Czech Republic Petr Pavel

The President-elect of the Czech Republic Petr Pavel

© picture alliance/dpa/CTK | Michaela Rihova

On Saturday 28 January, the Czech Republic elected a new president: Petr Pavel. The ex-general defeated former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in the second round of voting. It was not an easy fight, however, as the last two weeks of the election campaign were exceedingly heated and polarised Czech society.

Flood of disinformation and international outrage

The development of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš's election campaign was remarkable: while Babiš was still trying to convince the public before the first round that he was no longer the hot-tempered and choleric politician of the past and that he had changed, his strategy changed 180 degrees a short time later. Immediately after the publication of the results of the first round, in which he had come a close second, he dropped his conciliatory rhetoric and he launched an aggressive campaign against his rival, Petr Pavel, at his press conference. That same day, his team had billboards put up all over the country proclaiming that Pavel wanted to take the Czech Republic to war. Dozens of chain emails and Facebook group messages popped up, and a number of Twitter bots came to life, actively and creatively spreading disinformation and messages designed to harm his challenger Petr Pavel. One of the most widespread narratives was that there would be a mobilisation of the army after Petr Pavel's victory. An analysis by Čeští Elfové (Czech Elves), a civic movement dedicated to fighting disinformation in Czech cyberspace, shows that in the second round of the presidential election the Czech disinformation scene ran a systematic campaign of lies against Pavel based on the fear of war mobilisation. There was a very gloomy atmosphere at Babiš's campaign events because his supporters were very frightened by the threats of war.

Behind the disinformation campaign is Babiš's long-time marketing expert Marek Prchal. Until last week, he was a member of the prestigious Art Directors Club Czech Republic (ADC), which brings together advertising professionals. The association expelled him from its ranks the day before the second ballot because he was using targeted marketing and advertising to spread lies and fear and to divide society. In addition to the intense fear-mongering about the war, Babiš's team decided to tap into a new group of voters: Christian believers. This is particularly paradoxical since Babiš, who had previously always described himself as a non-believer, became a believer almost overnight. The fact that his campaign team wanted to visit the Church of Our Lady of Victories for publicity purposes, which also houses a famous statuette, the Infant Jesus of Prague, which is pretty much a pilgrimage symbol for devout Christians, suggests that the change to faith may have been more of a political stunt than a sudden overnight epiphany. The church itself did not want its hallowed halls to be associated with the campaign and so made a statement that it would remain closed during Babiš's scheduled visit. But that did not stop Babiš's team from coming to the church at another time to shoot their promotional video.

The absolute low point of Babiš's election campaign, however, was a TV debate that caused an international uproar. When the presenter asked Babiš whether the Czech Republic should send troops in the event of a hypothetical Russian attack on Poland or the Baltic states, the potential commander-in-chief of the armed forces replied that he would "definitely not send our children to war". This statement filled the headlines of the Polish and Baltic media and later had to be denied by the Czech foreign and defence ministers.

One for all, all for one

The election campaign of the second presidential candidate Petr Pavel could not have been in stronger contrast to the one of Babiš. It is common that the presidential candidates eliminated in the first round declare their support for one of the two finalists. While no one spoke out for Babiš, Petr Pavel received support from Danuše Nerudová, Pavel Fischer and Marek Hilšer, who had been eliminated in the first round, some with decent results. However, for the first time in the history of the Czech Republic, the ex-candidates actively participated in his campaign during the last two weeks of the election campaign: they joined Pavel in visiting citizens, gave him their prepaid advertising space, supported him very enthusiastically on social media and even organised events promoting Pavel.

Pavel also received strong support from his adherents. Within two days, his supporters transferred CZK 10 million (the maximum) to his transparent account for the last two weeks of the election campaign. Nevertheless, he couldn't rest on his laurels. Experts and polls were not sure how many voters from the ranks of the other presidential candidates would actually vote for him in the second round. The fact that Pavel was a former member of the Communist Party was an insurmountable obstacle for many voters - despite all the good Pavel had done for Czech society in the course of his life since then. This played into Babiš's hands. While Babiš's team tried to further unsettle the undecided and thus keep them away from the ballot box, Pavel's team tried to appeal to this group of voters. In the last two weeks, Pavel went to those regions where he had not received as many votes in the first round. Babiš's hate campaign had the opposite effect here: instead of making people feel insecure, thousands came to support Pavel.

Petr Pavel: Who is the new president of the Czech Republic?

The Czech Republic has not seen such an exciting election campaign for a long time. The importance of this election was underlined by the high turnout: 70.25% of voters (5,759,197) went to the polls in the second round of voting, making it the third highest turnout in the history of the Czech Republic. Of these, 58.32% voted for Petr Pavel - almost one million votes more than Babiš received. The former prime minister thus suffered a crushing defeat. Internationally, Pavel's election victory made many breathe a sigh of relief. It is particularly noteworthy that Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, who received the Freedom Award of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in 2022 for her commitment to liberal democracy, personally came to Pavel's campaign office to congratulate him.

Petr Pavel has run as an independent candidate who does not affiliate himself with any political direction or party, but has appealed primarily to the liberal and centrist spectrum of voters. He emphasises the importance of NATO, the EU and democratic values. At the same time, he states that he stands for justice, dignity, respect and decency, which was attractive to a broad spectrum of voters of all ages.

Pavel served as military and air force attaché of the Czech Republic in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. He later took part in the UNPROFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia. The force he commanded at the time succeeded in rescuing and liberating over fifty encircled French soldiers in the midst of a difficult combat mission. For this achievement, he was awarded the French War Cross. During his career, he received eleven awards from five different countries. The highlight of his career so far was his appointment as Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces (2012) and subsequent election as Chairman of the NATO Military Committee (2015).

And what happens next for Babiš?

The question of what will happen to Babiš and his ANO party is a big unknown with many variables. The ANO party will soon hold a party congress to elect a new party leadership. If Andrej Babiš remains ANO leader, this will probably set things in motion within the party. The dirty presidential election campaign has already been too much for some ANO MPs, who have started to speak out publicly against Andrej Babiš, which is not usual in the ANO party. A possible way out for these MPs would be to form a faction within the party that would work together with the so-called democratic bloc (the current governing coalition).

Another stumbling block on Babiš's future path could also be the amendment of the lustration law. The lustration law, passed after the 1989 revolution, had ensured until a few years ago that former members of the State Security (StB) or collaborators or even high-ranking functionaries of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia could not get into important positions in the state apparatus, such as in the government, the army or the judiciary. However, in 2014, the government in which Babiš was minister at the time, quickly amended this law to exempt members of the government. The then new Minister of Finance Babiš is registered as a StB agent and therefore could not prove himself with a lustration certificate. The current government wants to interpret the law more strictly again. If the amendment was adopted, Babiš would not be able to become a minister or prime minister of the Czech Republic.

Reunification of society under Pavel

Petr Pavel's victory is good news for the country's pro-Western development. After years of dividing society under outgoing president Miloš Zeman, who was known for his love for Russia and China, the new president will have his hands full bringing together the currently highly polarised society and charting a new course. In his first speech as newly elected president, Pavel went straight to work. He thanked all voters who went to the polls and showed that they appreciate democracy. He also stressed that he did not want to emphasise the differences and divisions, but rather what the Czechs have in common. This would not only concern the language, the beauty of the country and its history, but also the common future and the common problems of Czech society.

Ester Povýšilová is a project manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's Central European and Baltic States Office in Prague.