International Politics
The Czech Republic is looking for a president

Presidential candidates pose for a photo
© picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Petr David Josek

The leading trio and 6 extras

The Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy in which executive power is divided between the government and the president. Any citizen who is eligible to vote and has reached the age of 40 can be elected for president. To be able to run, a candidate must have the support of at least 20 deputies or 10 senators, or of at least 50,000 citizens who sign a petition to that effect. This means that even someone without a political background can run for president, as long as he or she is well-known or has a good marketing team.

It was already clear in the autumn that there would be three candidates running for the presidency who also have actual chances: Andrej Babiš (candidate of the ANO party, party leader and former prime minister), Danuše Nerudová (independent candidate, economist and former rector of Mendel University in Brno) and Petr Pavel (independent candidate, former general of the Czech army). While bookmakers are certain that Petr Pavel will win the election, all three are polling just above 20%, and they have taken turns leading over time, often separated by only a statistical margin of error. The polls also show that a third of the electorate is still undecided.

But regardless of which of them wins, the other six candidates are more like extras for these three, so no one gives them a realistic chance of winning. This was also evident in the presidential candidates' debate on public television, to which all 9 official candidates were invited (Babiš, however, did not participate), but where also the 6 rather chance-less candidates were invited to ask questions to the leading trio ( resp. duo). The wave of resentment therefore turned into a boycott, as hardly anyone wanted to ask questions and give additional space to the top trio (duo).

Court disputes, communist past or diploma fraud?

As is the tradition in the Czech Republic, the leading candidates' blots come to the fore before every election. And none of the leading trio has a clean slate. Two of the candidates have a communist past. Petr Pavel has come under criticism for his involvement in the Communist Party and his post-graduate studies at the then General Staff Intelligence Administration. It should be noted that this was a regular career as a soldier in the then Czechoslovak People's Army and military intelligence was not a repressive arm of the regime at the time. Andrej Babiš, on the other hand, is registered as a StB collaborator (the secret police services of Czechoslovakia), but denies his past, even though there are ten different documents proving his collaboration with the StB.

Babiš, however, has a whole series of scandals behind him. In recent months, Babiš has been on trial for a CZK 50 million subsidy fraud for the construction of the "Stork's Nest" complex in Central Bohemia. But the judge acquitted Babiš on 9 January because of incorrectly drawn up charges, four days before the first round of elections. However, an investigation by the French Serious Crime Investigation Agency (PNF) on suspicion of money laundering and tax evasion in connection with Andrej Babiš's purchase of real estate in France is still ongoing. But these scandals - known for years - seem to leave Babiš's electorate indifferent.

Danuše Nerudová, unlike the gentlemen, does not have the shadow of a communist past behind her (she repeats this accordingly often). How could she, she was 10 years old at the time of the Velvet Revolution. But she also has to withstand criticism. During her time as rector of Mendel University in Brno, according to the National Accreditation Office for Higher Education (NAE), some foreign students at the Faculty of Economics studied one year less than the regulations in force. In addition, there were problems with dissertations. About 25 000 EUR had to be paid for a doctorate in economics and management. The faculty is now threatened with withdrawal of institutional accreditation. Nerudová first hid from criticism and then began to explain the scandal adequately. The question is whether the explanation did not come too late.

The most important political topic of the last 10 years: Babiš

While Petr Pavel and Danuše Nerudová had to capture the attention of Czechs, Andrej Babiš is the only one of the three leading candidates who was well known to all. He is a personality who arouses emotions and controversies and divides society. He grew up as a protégé of the regime, took advantage of his opportunities, rose quickly and, in the wild and ruleless 90s, started businesses in many different sectors, especially in the agro-food sector. But the business world became too small for him, so in 2011 he founded the political movement ANO 2011 (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens). He initially defined it as a right-wing party with a social consciousness and later changed the definition to a catch-all party. However, this definition does not change the fact that Babiš is an opportunist populist who gives a lot to the rich (especially himself) and only a little to the poor, but enough to get their votes.

Back in 2013, the ANO joined the governing coalition and Babiš became Minister of Finance. President Miloš Zeman appointed him then without a mandatory lustration certificate (a certificate about whether a person was a member of the StB or not). Within four years, Babiš managed to make a power pact with President Zeman, split society into two hateful camps, start a negative trend in the Czech household and get almost all voters of the left coalition partner on his side. After the 2017 elections, he was already a proud prime minister of a minority government formed thanks to the support of the Communist Party.

But apart from the high national debt, this "crisis manager" (as he likes to call himself) has above all harmed society. Many people have got used to his distorted relationship to the truth and also to the fact that Babiš is also friends with undemocratic representatives of other countries. They are not bothered by his legal squabbles, subsidy scams or his aggressive rhetoric and behaviour. He constantly talks his way out of the dictates of Brussels. Hate and fear are the main connecting elements of his electorate. However, he never gets too far in practice because his companies depend on European subsidies. That is why he cannot be compared to an Orbán in Hungary. His populism always remained pragmatic and unideological. In the end, Czech democracy proved to be quite resilient and the institutions remained intact - perhaps also because he never had the majority of the citizens behind him. In the end, his government was also only a fragile minority government. Even under his leadership, the Czech Republic did not become a second Poland or Hungary.

Moreover, a change occurred in the parliamentary elections of 2021: After years of Babiš's populism, the parties of the democratic bloc, which stand for Václav Havel's pro-Western course, have finally taken their place in the government. If Pavel or Nerudová were elected, a large part of society would see this as a new chance to revive the democratic values of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. But Babiš has a greater motivation to win than the others, because he is mainly playing for 5 (eventually 10) years of immunity that the presidential office would grant him.

Species: Czech voters

The electorate in the Czech Republic is undergoing a major transformation. In the past, there were mainly groups of die-hard regular voters and the election results could usually be better predicted. Now this trend is clearly declining and people are making their decisions at the last minute, some even at the ballot box. In a presidential election, this is good news for civic candidates, but also a big challenge for marketing and PR teams.

Thus, of the leadership trio, Andrej Babiš has the largest, most determined core of voters, consisting mainly of people with primary education or a rather low level of education (no high school diploma) and predominantly in the 60+ age group. At the same time, he also has the largest group of opponents (more than half of the respondents would definitely not vote for him). This spectrum of voters is likely to secure his advancement to the second round, but his team will have to convince his opponents or die-hard non-voters in the eventual second round.

On the other side are Danuše Nerudová and Petr Pavel, who share more than half of the electorate and are supported mainly by people with higher education, who are mostly found in big cities. And they are fighting for them, of course. For example, while Babiš does not invest much in his visual presentation in Prague, Nerudová and Pavel smile at Prague residents from billboards in the most frequented places. The possibility of both making it to the second round is rather unlikely.

The best Christmas cookies

In Czechia, there is probably no one who would dare to answer the question: Who will be the next president? However, one thing is clear: This election will take place in two rounds, and the two candidates will face a long and difficult January in which they will have to convince wavering voters and convinced non-voters. The odds are very even and every vote will count. So we can look forward to a barrage of posts on social media. The hit of this year's candidates were posts about baking Christmas cookies with the family. They may continue in January with tips on losing weight.

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