Czech Republic Elections

Ex-NATO official edges Babis to move into pole position for Czech presidency

| 2023-01-15 2 min read

Ex-NATO official edges Babis to move into pole position for Czech presidency

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Retired General Petr Pavel will face ex-prime minister Andrej Babis in Czechia’s presidential runoff vote after narrowly beating him into second place in an eight-candidate ballot on Friday and Saturday, 13-14 January.

Pavel received 35.4% of the votes, to Andrej Babis’s 34.99%, missing the simple majority required for victory, and the pair will now meet in a final head-to-head vote on 27-28 January.

The winner will replace President Milos Zeman, who will step down in March after serving a maximum two five-year terms. Voter turnout was 68.2%, up from 61.9% in 2018. Neither of the remaining candidates officially represents a political party.

Pro-EU Pavel backs upping aid to Ukraine

As an erstwhile NATO military committee chairman and general chief of staff, Pavel, 61, has been a staunch supporter of increased military aid for Ukraine, like Czechia’s center-right Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who has endorsed his candidacy.

Czechia received widespread praise for its recent six-month presidency of the Council of the EU. EC Vice President Frans Timmermans described the Fiala administration’s tenure as “one of the most successful in past decades. I have rarely seen a presidency that was more successful, more purposeful, and more professional,” Timmermans said.

Babis’s presidential bid has meanwhile been backed by incumbent Zeman, who shares both his Eurosceptic leanings and his opposition to hiking military aid to Ukraine. Babis has even called for peace talks to be held with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

Pavel on Saturday, 14 January, denounced Babis’s negative campaigning and populism, and warned that a Babis victory would risk Czechia “veering off the course we followed the last 30 years: distinctly pro-democratic, pro-Western, pro-European”. 

The retired general has also rejected Zeman’s comment that Babis has more political experience than him, saying their brand of politics is one of “division, chaos, distortion of facts and lies. Babis’s lies do not need to be discussed,” he added “just smile back nicely… if we do that he will lose”.

Populist Babis would use presidential leverage

Billionaire entrepreneur turned-politician Babis served as Czechia’s prime minister from 2017-21. Before entering politics he built up the farming, chemicals and media conglomerate Agrofert, which is now held in trusts, and was cleared of EU subsidy fraud by a Czech court just days before the election. 

Although the presidential role is mainly ceremonial, Babis has said he would pressure the Fiala cabinet as head of state. “Pavel would only execute the will of the government,” Babis claimed at the weekend. 

Although Babis has tried to attack Pavel’s past as a soldier and Communist Party member, he also was a party member and has faced accusations of cooperating with the secret police in his native Slovakia.

Numbers suggest Pavel victory at month end

Given the weekend results, Pavel is now the clear favourite to become Czechia’s next president. As well as Fiala, Pavel has the support of the candidates who came third, fourth and sixth.

Danuse Nerudova, who received 13.93% of the vote, said “there is still a great evil here, and it is called Andrej Babis”. Conservative ex-diplomat Pavel Fischer, who received 6.75%, also pledged to back Pavel in the two weeks leading up to his final run-off with Babis.

Czech political scientist Jiri Pehe tweeted that “Babis has nowhere else to go for other voters from, except the (right-wing populist) SPD. Pavel theoretically has more than a million votes from Nerudova, Fischer and (sixth-placed with 2.56%, Marek) Hilser at his disposal…. if Pavel gets even half of them, (Babis) will be the victim.”