Czech presidential elections 2023 – what happened?

Petr Pavel, a retired general and former senior NATO commander, has swept to the Czech presidency. He secured a landslide victory over the former prime minister Andrej Babiš, with a margin of 58.3% to 41.68% – the largest ever recorded in a Czech presidential poll and an advantage of nearly one million votes. In a campaign described as divisive and dirty, and one that was framed through the lens of secure leadership or unabashed populism, it was Pavel who came out on top and who replaces the controversial outgoing president Miloš Zeman. Although a largely ceremonial role, the election of Pavel to the presidency is an important story in terms of both the direction of the Czech Republic and its place within Europe. Here’s what happened in the campaign and elections.

   People in the Czech Republic had been discussing the 2023 election immediately after Zeman was elected in 2013, in large part because of his age. Many of the projected right-wing candidates at the time did indeed stand this year, and the election talk only intensified in 2018 after Zeman was elected to his second and final term (as a result of a two-term limit) – there was widespread speculation that his health would force a retirement before 2023. The opposition Civic Democratic Party and a selection of other parties met in summer 2019 to discuss a possible common candidate, and one name rose to the top of the list – Pavel.

   Babiš and Pavel started making moves to establish a presidential run. Pavel launched an initiative to help people during the Covid-19 pandemic, while populist party ANO’s defeat in the 2021 legislative election prompted speculation that Babiš would aim for the presidency, attempting to succeed where his party had failed. Both men were busy acquiring the backing necessary to qualify for the ballot, and after the deadline passed, they were two of the eight candidates who made the cut. Pavel was seen as the strongest of the bunch, although Babiš benefitted from his established political experience, and he received a campaign boost after he was cleared by the Municipal Court in Prague of an alleged fraud case involving the misuse of EU subsidies.


Although Pavel and Babiš were the favourites, a third name entered the fray – Danuše Nerudová.


Although Pavel and Babiš were the favourites, a third name entered the fray – Danuše Nerudová, the former rector of Mendel University. She sat on the respectable, liberal side of the election, alongside Pavel, and she boasted strong support among young voters – indeed, in November, she was leading in some opinion polls. Her image was damaged by an investigation into Mendel and the validity of doctorates being awarded to foreign students under her watch, and she faced questions about her competency as both a rector and a politician. Her response took aim at her two rivals: “Our country was managed as a company for eight years. But our country cannot be managed like a company, and by the way, not even like a military unit. Our country needs to be managed like a family.”

   The first round of voting took place on 13-14 January, with the knowledge that it was almost certainly going to head to a run-off between just two of the eight candidates. The question, though, was who those two would be, as Babiš, Pavel and Nerudová were essentially neck and neck in the opinion polls. Heading into the election, a quarter of voters reported being undecided, and a significant shift in any direction could have changed the complexion of the race. In the end, however, it wasn’t close between the three – Pavel and Babiš occupied the top two spots, with 35.4% and 35% of the vote respectively, while third-placed Nerudová took just 13.9%. It was essentially a draw, but it wouldn’t remain that way.

   There were two remaining, and Pavel almost immediately assumed the frontrunner mantle – polls predicted he would win with an around 20-point margin. Most of the eliminated candidates in the first round backed him, as well as the incumbent prime minister Petr Fiala. But Babiš was not out by any means, and he received endorsements from the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and, importantly, outgoing president Zeman. He also had the advantage of a large opposition group in the parliament, and a loyal core of mostly older people who benefitted from his five years as prime minister.


The European question hung over the two remaining candidates, with the EU taking a close interest in the race.


Pavel was keen to stress the danger of Babiš winning after the results of the first round were in. He said: “The danger is that we would start sliding not only toward populism but also start veering off the course we followed the past 30 years, clearly pro-democratic, pro-Western, pro-European.” The European question hung over the two remaining candidates, with the EU taking a close interest in the race.

   On the condition of anonymity, an EU diplomat said: “While Babiš loves to brag about having everybody’s phone number around the EU, he was never seen as a man of compromise here in Brussels.” The “EU is rather a playing card for him, which he either uses to exaggerate his personal skills and influence or to picture a scapegoat responsible for people’s hardships,” he said. The official added: “On the other hand, Pavel has a significant career in military and NATO and is seen as a rational figure. He knows a compromise is not a dirty word and the security and prosperity of our free world needs to be cared about. With real allies.”

   The war in Ukraine and Pavel’s military career took centre stage in Babiš’ second-round campaign. Babiš attacked Pavel as a warmonger, and ran a series of billboards stating “I will not drag Czechia into war. I’m a diplomat, not a soldier”, which was widely condemned. He constantly referenced Pavel’s past membership of the then-ruling Communist party, while downplaying and hushing accusations that he collaborated with the secret service at the same time. A series of text messages were sent which purported to be from Pavel, instructing people to report to the nearest branch of the Armed Forces for conscription in the Russo-Ukrainian war – Pavel accused Babiš of having sent them. Babiš then questioned Czech assistance to NATO allies in a debate, prompting panic and criticism from the governments of several NATO countries. In response, Pavel pledged his support, and promised to visit Poland if he was elected.

   Disinformation and dirty tactics continued. Babiš and his family were targeted by several death threats while campaigning, and Pavel’s website was attacked multiple times by hackers. On the eve of the election, Pavel was forced to deny reports of his own death, which were announced by email and on a counterfeit version of his campaign website. This sparked allegations of dirty tricks and a police investigation, and was perceived as the last-ditch attempt by Babiš’ campaign to prevent its inevitable loss.


Pavel called his win a victory for “truth, dignity, respect and humility”.


The second round came on 27-28 January, and everyone was expecting a Pavel victory. It came, and by a significant margin – the margin of victory was so big, analysts are now doubting whether Babiš will survive in politics long enough to lead ANO into the next parliamentary election, due in 2025. Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and the director of New York University in Prague, said: “He will try to say he has attracted new voters that don’t normally vote for ANO and that this is a victory. But this is his third election defeat in a row and the most personal of all. If he is the leader of what’s effectively a one-man party and he keeps losing, that will have an effect on ANO, no doubt.”

   Pavel called his win a victory for “truth, dignity, respect and humility”, and vowed to seek national unity – his strong reputation and his popular support linked to a selection of liberal social policies puts him in a unique position to realise this. Even though the presidency is largely a symbolic role in the Czech Republic, it carries much moral authority and the power of appointment in areas such as the judiciary and the central bank. The president also has the prerogative to choose prime ministers in the wake of elections, essentially setting the direction of the country. By contrast to the outgoing Zeman, the pro-Western and European Pavel is likely to result in a more liberal Czech Republic, and not place undue pressure on Fiala’s coalition government.

   Pehe said: “Pavel will be a huge change – this cannot be overestimated. We’ve had in the last 10 years a president who in many ways was a disgrace for the Czech Republic. He was pro-Russian, bypassed the constitution and was rude and offensive. Pavel will try his best to somehow represent the whole of society. He is someone who has a respect for the rules of the game.”


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