PULASKI COMMENTARY: Presidential elections in the Czech Republic – potential implications for the country, EU and NATO (Ihor Havrylyuk)

PULASKI COMMENTARY: Presidential elections in the Czech Republic – potential implications for the country, EU and NATO (Ihor Havrylyuk)

In the second round of Czech’s presidential elections held on January 27-28, retired army general Petr Pavel expectedly won over ex-prime minister Andrej Babiš. In the run-off 58,32% of the voters supported Pavel, while Babiš won 41,67% of the ballot.[i] The turnout was one of the highest since elections became direct and hit the level of 70,25%. Among the central topics of the 2023 presidential elections was the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The president’s role in the political system of the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is a unitary parliamentary republic, where the role of the president is primarily ceremonial. Nonetheless, the head of state exercises a certain degree of power as he appoints and dismisses the prime minister and other members of the government, convenes and dissolves the Chamber of Deputies, appoints judges of the Constitutional Court, as well as of the Supreme Court, and can veto a bill passed by the parliament. To be able to effectively exercise power the president must cooperate with the head of the executive branch – the prime minister. The President is being elected for a 5-year term and cannot hold office more than twice. Given the circumstances, the president’s role in the political system of the country is fairly modest.

Profile of the candidates

The electoral victory of Petr Pavel, retired army general, Chief of General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces (2012-2015) and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee (2015-2018) did not come as a surprise, as he was expected to get 57,9% of the total votes.[ii] The outcomes of both rounds revealed a certain tendency: most of the general’s voters represent large urbanised areas.[iii] Officially independent, Pavel gained endorsement of the parties forming the current governing pro-Western, centre-right coalition. Former Chief of General Staff enjoys a high degree of deference among uniformed services as well as among civilians and being described as “unhesitating and hard-headed.”[iv] In a bid to reverse his country from the course on populism, Pavel led his campaign under the slogan “Let’s restore order and calm in Czechia.” Apart from being a strong proponent of Euroatlantic unity, he espouses the idea of increasing military aid to Ukraine, adoption of euro, same-sex marriages and euthanasia in Czechia.

After ten years of Miloš Zeman’s controversial presidency marked by leaning towards China and Russia, the general’s victory in the elections was received by many both domestically and abroad with unhindered endorsement. Pavel is positively perceived by NATO and EU allies and hailed by Western media as a person able to preserve democracy in the country. Polish president, Andrzej Duda, was one of the first to congratulate the former general on his victory and invited him to pay a visit to Warsaw.[v]

Pavel’s rival, Andrej Babiš, is a former prime minister of the country (2017-2021), founding leader of the political party ANO 2011 and one of the richest people in Czechia. According to the pre-election polls only 42,4% of the votes were ready to cast their vote in his favour.[vi] In a fashion typical for populist politicians, Babiš pledged to exert pressure on the ruling coalition in order to get more support for households at the backdrop of inflation and growing costs of living.[vii] Such slogans enjoy popularity among his electorate in the peripheral areas.[viii] Babiš is also a proponent of tightening relations with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Obran, known for lobbying Russian interests in the West. During the TV debate held on Sunday, January 22, the former prime minister said that in the event of an attack on Poland or the Baltic states he would not send Czech troops to defend the allies. His words sparked an immediate criticism both domestically and in the region as in the face of heightened tensions between Russia and NATO, the statement of Babiš sounded particularly irresponsible. He also made statements against sending military aid to Ukraine and in favour of organising a peace conference in Prague. During the campaign, Babiš posed himself as a diplomat, who would “prevent Czechia from being dragged into the war”, opposing Pavel, presented as a “soldier.[ix]” Noticeably, intimidation of Europeans with a prospect of a great war has been one of the key narratives of Russian propaganda since the outbreak of the full-scale war in Ukraine.

Conclusions

Victory of a pro-Western candidate in the presidential elections will help to continue and strengthen Petr Fiala’s government domestic and foreign policy. Amid rampant inflation and growing living costs as well as a crisis of confidence towards the authorities in Czechia unity in the executive branch will be particularly crucial[x]. Pavel obtained a powerful mandate to “restore order and calm” in the country as he gained the highest number of votes in the history of Czech presidential elections[xi].

Under Fiala’s government, Prague has been showing strong commitment to the obligations stemming from the membership in NATO and against the backdrop of the scandal with Babiš, Czech top diplomat Jan Lipavský again reconfirmed readiness of this country to defend the allies.[xii] It is to be expected that Petr Pavel will be one of the guardians of the unity in the Euro-Atlantic community that Moscow has been hoping to undermine.

This also poses a good signal for regional partners such as Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states. Along with them, Czechia was one of the first EU and NATO members, who provided Ukraine with significant military support in the early months of the invasion: infantry fighting vehicles BMP-1, main battle tanks T-72, multiple rocket launchers RM-70, helicopters Mi-24, ammunition etc. Apart from that, 90 Soviet-era tanks are currently undergoing profound modernisation at the facilities of the Czech company Excalibur, which ultimately will be delivered to Ukraine.

There were fears that alongside Hungary, Czechia would be another country in Central and Eastern Europe calling for a policy change towards Russia, thereby bringing discord among the NATO allies. From Poland’s perspective, one of the most staunch Ukraine’s allies and proponents of increased NATO military presence in the region, pro-Western Czechia will pose a counterbalance against Hungary’s openly pro-Moscow stance and reinforce the group of states supporting the idea of providing Ukraine with all necessary help to repel the Russian forces to the 2014 pre-war borders.

Author, Ihor Havrylyuk, Casimir Pulaski Foundation

 

[i] Prezidentské volby 2023, Novinky.cz, https://www.novinky.cz/sekce/volby-prezidenta-313

[ii] Lucie Hottková , Průzkumy a kurzy bookmakerů v prezidentských volbách 2023“, Novinky.cz, January 23, 2023, https://www.novinky.cz/clanek/volby-prezidenta-pruzkum-volebni-prefererence-2023-40414214

[iii]Jiří Kropáček, Aleš Vojíř, „Jak volila vaše ulice, čtvrť nebo sídliště? Nejdetailnější výsledky druhého kola“, Aktualne.cz,  January 29, 2023, https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/vysledky-2-kola-prezidentskych-voleb-2023-v-okrscich/r~69803a329be211eda9eeac1f6b220ee8/

[iv] Jan Lopatka, “Petr Pavel: who is the ex-army chief leading Czech presidential election race?”, Euronews, January 25, 2023, https://www.euronews.com/2023/01/25/czech-election-pavel

[v]“Pavlovi blahopřáli ze zahraničí. Po Čaputové i ukrajinský prezident a Macron”,iDNES.cz, January 28, 2023, https://www.idnes.cz/zpravy/zahranicni/slovensko-pavel-babis-volby-cesko-slovensko-media-reakce-zahranici-prezident.A230128_153152_zahranicni_jhr

[vi] “Prezidentem by byl Pavel. Druhé kolo by vyhrál s 57,6 procenta hlasů, ukázal průzkum”, Aktualne.cz, January 22, 2023, https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/pruzkum-2-kolo-stem/r~540b0f069a3e11edb1f50cc47ab5f122/

[vii]“Pavel wins first round of Czech presidential election”, Deutsche Welle, January 14, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/czech-republic-ex-general-pavel-wins-first-round-of-presidential-election/a-64395190

[viii]Jiří Kropáček, Aleš Vojíř, „Jak volila vaše ulice, čtvrť nebo sídliště? Nejdetailnější výsledky druhého kola“, Aktualne.cz,  January 29, 2023, https://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/vysledky-2-kola-prezidentskych-voleb-2023-v-okrscich/r~69803a329be211eda9eeac1f6b220ee8/

[ix] Radek Bartoníček, “O válce nemluvím, obracíte to proti mně, tvrdí Babiš. Nerozumí diplomacii, říká Fiala”, Aktualne.cz, January 20, 2023, https://video.aktualne.cz/babis-benesov/r~5d6e2c3498d311ed8d680cc47ab5f122/

[x]“Důvěra ústavním institucím na přelomu let 2022 a 2023”, Centrum pro výzkum veřejného mínění, January 20, 2023, https://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/cz/tiskove-zpravy/politicke/instituce-a-politici/5633-duvera-ustavnim-institucim-na-prelomu-let-2022-a-2023

[xi]Adam Kahánek, “Pavel má nejsilnější mandát v historii”, Novinky.cz, January 28, 2023, https://www.novinky.cz/clanek/volby-prezidenta-pavel-ma-nejsilnejsi-mandat-v-historii-40421348

[xii]„Czesi zawsze będą gotowi bronić Polaków”. MSZ odpowiada na słowa Babisza”, Polskie Radio24.pl, January 23, 2023, https://polskieradio24.pl/5/1223/artykul/3107561,czesi-zawsze-beda-gotowi-bronic-polakow-msz-odpowiada-na-slowa-babisza