By Tim Haughton (University of Birmingham)

Some things never change. The new Czech president will be another man with a five letter surname. Following in the footsteps of Havel, Klaus and Zeman will be either (Petr) Pavel or (Andrej) Babis, both of whom won 35% of the vote in the first round at the weekend. For the last few months it had looked like a three horse race, but Danuse Nerudova, who had been running at 20-25% in the last opinion polls, saw her support slump to less than 14%.
The Czech presidency has limited powers, closer to the German model than the French, although he (let’s hope one day it is a she) has powers to nominate judges and the governor of the Central Bank, grant pardons, veto legislation and invite a party leader to form a government after parliamentary elections. As well as being a symbolic figure representing the nation, the president can and has been heavily involved in day-to-day politics, particular if caretaker governments have to be formed.

Andrej Babis is the Marmite figure of Czech politics: you either love him or hate him. A rich and successful businessman he has been the dominant figure of the country’s politics in the past decade serving as both finance minister and prime minister. Controversy has stalked Babis. In addition to allegations tied to his links to the communist-era security services and the charges of democratic erosion when he occupied the prime ministerial office, he was charged in relation to fraud of EU subsidies used to fund the construction of the Stork’s Nest leisure resort. His timely acquittal of those charges just four days before Czechs went the polls offered him a boost and may have played a role in helping mobilizing some voters to turn out to support him.

Babis followed a classic mobilization strategy. His clear message to the electorate was that the Czech Republic is suffering and the fault for that suffering lies at the hands of the government led by Petr Fiala, the man who had replaced Babis as Czech premier after the 2021 parliamentary elections. Babis sought to frame the election as between him (who is on the side of ordinary people who are suffering) and his opponents such as Pavel and Nerudova (who were backed by the governing coalition).

His campaign tactics were well suited to the task of securing a spot in the second round. Babis and his party ANO have a solid support base of around a third of Czech voters, hence the strategy was to mobilize sympathetic and supportive voters. Babis’s preferred means of campaigning is the “talk show”, in which he is gently interviewed and thrown easy questions sitting on a comfortable sofa whilst adherents laugh and clap at the appropriate moments. Key images and videos are then broadcast using social media tools notably Facebook.

Babis avoided all but one of the TV debates, no doubt conscious that he does not perform well in such fora, and that in a race involving nine candidates he didn’t want to appear to be just one of many. His participation in the final TV debate at least ensured he would avoid the criticism thrown at the British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017: “if you want the job you should turn up for the audition”.

Whereas Babis sought to frame the election as a choice between him or candidates of the governing coalition, Pavel and Nerudova employed common campaigning strategies, familiar to those who study elections: Pavel played on ‘don’t risk it, we need a safe pair of hands’, whereas Nerudova sought to project the idea that ‘things can be different/better’. Moreover, the appeals of Babis’s two main opponents in the first round owed much to elements frequently used by new parties in Central and Eastern Europe linked to competence and newness. Tapping into the deep anti-party sentiment in Czech politics, highlighted by scholars such as Vlastimil Havlik, both Pavel and Nerudova distanced themselves from the existing array of parties. In fact, it was striking that only two of the nine candidates were explicitly party candidates: Babis himself and Jaroslav Basta of the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party.

Petr Pavel’s pitch to the electorate highlighted that in today’s world there is much to worry about, but here is the calm, experienced man to deal with it. General Pavel’s military background in both the Czech army and NATO have clear resonance at a time of war on the European continent. No doubt conscious that a military background plays better with some sections of the electorate than others Pavel made a distinct pitch for the younger anti-Babis voters in the final weeks. His team downplayed the images in uniform or as a military action man. Instead he appeared in campaign videos and photos in relaxed civvies, at home with his cat, and pouring beer and socializing in a student pub. Gen Z for Gen P as a member of campaign team like to put it.

Nerudova’s gender was an important component of her appeal with a sizeable section of the Czech electorate keen to see a woman president in a country where men have dominated (and often performed and behaved badly). Beyond the clarion call to give the country a restart, Nerudova’s pitch to the electorate was built on two pillars: her expertise as an economist and as the rector of Mendel university. Both came under attack in the final weeks of the campaign. Questions were raised about her academic standing, but more significantly she seemed unable to answer convincingly questions surrounding scandals at Mendel University. Whether she was personally responsible for the misdeeds or not, it didn’t make her look like the expert manager who could be entrusted with the country’s highest office.

Babis’s achievement in winning 35% of the vote in a relatively high turnout (68%) election likely suggests he has mobilized most of those who might be inclined to cast their votes for him in the second round. You cannot convince those who hate Marmite to eat it. Rather, the former prime minister’s best chance of winning in the second round is to dissuade voters who cast their ballots for his opponents other than Pavel to swing behind the General.
The demobilization campaign is now in full swing. By Saturday evening the rather mild barbs thrown during the first round had been replaced by a nastier discourse. The gloves were off as Babis sought to distinguish himself as a diplomat from Pavel the soldier with the clear implication that Pavel would be more likely to drag the country into war. Opponents of Babis were quick to suggest this was the leader of ANO taking the country down the Viktor Orban path.

General Pavel’s Achilles Heel is his communist past. For a 61 year old career soldier it is no surprise he has a communist past. Exactly what he did as a young member of the army in the 1980s remains unclear, but Babis’s campaign clearly sees this as a weakness to exploit.

But what we know about negative campaigning in two candidate races is that whilst it can be highly effective it can also backfire. Harsh rhetoric directed at an opponent might dissuade some voters from backing Pavel in the second round. But equally rather than demobilizing potential Pavel voters such language and attacks may serve to galvanize the anti-Babis voters.

The Czech Republic is in for a bruising fortnight.

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