New era in Czech politics as Petr Pavel wins presidential election

Cover of Czech independent weekly Respekt from January 16-22, showing on the left, Petr Pavel, and on the right Andrej Babiš, the two candidates of the second round of the presidential election. Photo by Filip Noubel, used with permission.

The Czech Republic elected its new head of state, General Petr Pavel, in the second tour of the presidential election that took place on January 27-28. This outcome is likely to strengthen Prague’s ties to the European Union, NATO and Ukraine. 

Following a first round of votes on January 13 and 14 that saw eight candidates — including only one woman — run for the presidency, not a single candidate secured over 50 percent of the votes. Thus, the two top candidates were eligible to run for the second and final direct election. These were General Petr Pavel, a former NATO high-ranking official, and Andrej Babiš, a former prime minister and businessman. 

The outcome of the second tour was uncertain: during the first round, while Pavel secured 35.4 percent, Babiš was extremely close with 34.9 percent. Pavel, though, did win by a large margin in the second round, 58.3 percent, while his rival remained under 41.7 percent. Most likely, Pavel benefited from votes of the third candidate of the first round, Danuše Nerudová. 

Pavel is a newcomer to Czech politics: he is a career serviceman, having raised to the ranks of general and chief of the general staff of the Czech armed forces. He also worked for many years at NATO, where he eventually became chairman of its Military Committee from 2015 to 2018, a position that brought him visibility and global connections. His political views are considered to be democratic, pro-Western and slightly conservative. 

The 61-year-old  will be inaugurated on March 9 as acting president for a period of five years.

The end of Babiš’ political career? 

Andrej Babiš is a powerhouse in Czech politics, having served as Prime Minister from 2017 to 2021, among other functions. Besides his political clout, he is also a famous businessman, owning large segments of the Czech economy and media. But the blurring of his two careers has also led to accusations of conflict of interest and possible embezzlement of European Union funds in the past. 

Positioning himself as a populist close to the people, and focusing on rural and economically disadvantaged regions of the country, he also stated he would not send Czech soldiers to fight abroad in case of a Russian attack in Eastern and Central Europe. As the electoral maps show, his main support base remains in the northwest and northeast, two formerly industrial regions that have larger pockets of poverty and unemployment. 

He conceded his defeat in his January 28 statement by underlining that over two million Czechs voted for him and his party ANO (Akce nespokojených občanů), Czech for “action by dissatisfied citizens,” which also sounds like the word “ano,” which means “yes” in Czech). He also asked his supporters to now focus on the 2025 parliamentary elections. ANO remains the leading force in parliament, with 72 out of 200 seats, but it remains to be seen if the party will still keep Babiš as its leader and icon after such a defeat.

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A tough agenda for Pavel

While the role of president is symbolic and limited according to the Czech constitution, Pavel can play an influential role as the fourth president of a country that emerged in 1993 out of former Czechoslovakia. He has clearly stated he is inspired by Czechoslovakia’s last and the Czech republic’s first President Václav Havel, whom he often quotes, as in this Facebook post on his own page:

Václav Havel mě jmenoval generálem a poctil vůbec první medailí ČR Za hrdinství. Byl to prezident, který vždy naslouchal druhým. Včera jsem si připomněl jeho slova: Naděje není to přesvědčení, že něco dobře dopadne, ale jistota, že má něco smysl – bez ohledu na to, jak to dopadne.

Václav Havel appointed general and honored me with the very first Medal for Heroism of the Czech Republic. He was a president who always listened to others. Yesterday I was reminded of his words: Hope is not the belief that things will turn out well, but the certainty that things have a meaning – regardless of how it all turns out.

At the same time, Pavel clearly and often distances himself from the current president Miloš Zeman. Perhaps one of the most contrasting images of the two is this tweet where Pavel is seen engaging in extreme sports while Zeman is known for his dependence on alcohol.

Please go and vote – it's just a jump away

The main challenge is the polarization of Czech society, which is divided not just politically, but also economically. The revenue gap between Prague and Brno, the second largest city, and the rest of the country, partially explains the success of Babiš’s populist rhetoric. As this article from iDnes, one of the most influential electronic daily indicates:

Polovina lidí v Česku bere měsíčně méně než 29 tisíc Kč čistého. […] Největší rozdíl mezi Prahou a zbytkem republiky je v nejvyšší platové kategorii. V Praze vydělávají ti nejlépe placení v průměru přes 70 tisíc Kč měsíčně.

Half of the people in the Czech Republic make less than CZK 29,000 [USD 1,323] net per month. […] The biggest difference between Prague and the rest of the country is in the highest salary category. In Prague, the best-paid earn an average of over CZK 70,000  [USD 3,194] per month.

In his first speech on January 28, commenting on his victory, Pavel insisted the whole country must come back together to support the values of democracy. He said:

Vyhrály hodnoty jako pravda, důstojnost, respekt a pokora. […] Musíme společně přesvědčit všechny občany této země, že návrat k těmto hodnotám a návrat normální smysluplné komunikace nám výrazně pomůže zlepšit kvalitu života v této zemi.

Values such as truth, dignity, respect and humility won. […] Together, we must convince all the citizens of this country that a return to these values, and a return to normal and meaningful communication will greatly help us improve the quality of life in this country.

Another source of deep division is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences: the rising cost of energy, the alignment of Prague with NATO on military issues, the diplomatic crisis with Moscow, the arrival of close to half a million Ukrainian refugees since February 24, 2022, when the invasion started. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated Pavel on his Twitter account:

I sincerely congratulate @general_pavel on his convincing victory in the presidential elections of the Czech Republic. I appreciate your support for Ukraine and our fight against Russian aggression. I look forward to our close personal cooperation for the benefit of the peoples of Ukraine and the Czech Republic and in the interests of a united Europe.

— Volodymyr Zelenskyi (@ZelenskyyUa) January 28, 2023

Another dividing issue is marriage equality for LGBTQ+ people, an issue that President Zeman has opposed vehemently, and for which the Czech President has power of veto if in disagreement with the parliament. In his campaign, Pavel spoke out in favour of marriage equality, in contrast to other candidates and current members of the Czech government.

One of the first surprises since the announcement of the results was the spontaneous visit to Pavel's headquarters in Prague by Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, a sign that neighbours are taking note of a radical change in Czech politics:

Slovak President @ZuzanaCaputova has just arrived at @general_pavel's staff @Radiozurnal1 @CRoPlus @iROZHLAScz #elections2023

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