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High-stakes Czech presidential campaign locked in three-way Mexican standoff

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Prague, Czech Republic – A month ago, 21 candidates ambitioned to run for the Prague Castle. On November 28, the Czech ministry of Interior validated 9 candidacies, including from former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

The first round of the Czech presidential election, taking place on January 13-14, 2023, is now one month away. More than 8 million voters will be asked to choose a successor to the controversial and ageing incumbent Miloš Zeman, in power since 2013 now reaching the end of his second term.

Fierce critic of the EU, notoriously friendly to China and Russia, and known for more than one scandals (including seemingly threatening journalists in a press conference using a Becherovka-magazined Kalashnikov in 2017), Miloš Zeman has for many Czechs damaged the reputation and standing of the Czech presidential office throughout his decade in the Prague Castle.

To restore the dignity of the office formerly held by Vaclav Havel followed by Vaclav Klaus, several candidates are campaigning on anti-corruption and transparency platforms. Most polls show three clear frontrunners in the tightly-fought race, all credited with about 23-30% of the votes.

Petr Pavel

Former Czech army general Petr Pavel (aged 61), already known to the public after several severe comments on Miloš Zeman’s presidency, can boast a prestigious military career: he served as Chief of Staff of the Czech Armed Forces between 2012 and 2015, before being elected as Head of the NATO Military Committee from 2015 to 2018 – the first officer from a former Warsaw Pact country to hold this position. Petr Pavel also commanded a special rescue operation in Bosnia that led to the successful operation of 55 French soldiers in 1993.

Largely pro-Western, Pavel appears to be open to discuss euro adoption and gay marriage rights. Since the very beginning, he has campaigned on a strong support for Ukraine in the context of Russia’s invasion and calls for more military and financial aid to Kyiv.

Pavel often claimed that one of his primary goals was to combat corruption in politics, “return order and peace to Czechia” and restore citizens’ trust in their politicians.

But the former army general is also facing controversy regarding his past, having joined the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1985 and supposedly training to become an intelligence officer in the regime’s secret StB police.

Danuše Nerudová

The former rector of Brno’s Mendel University, economist Danuše Nerudová, 43, also appears to have a strong winning chance to become the Czech Republic’s first-ever female president. Nerudová launched her campaign last May, stating that the country “cannot be managed like a company, nor like a military unit” in an obvious reference to her two main rivals. “Our country needs to be managed like a family”, she stated as an alternative.

As an economist her research focused on tax policy and harmonisation in the European Union and gender inequalities. She’s also the the patron of the civic initiative Pomoc dětem na útěku, which supports refugee children on the island of Lesbos since 2021.

Similarly to Pavel, Nerudová is a harsh critic of the outgoing president, describing Zeman as “an old sick man who is the president of his friends, but certainly not the president of 10.5 million people”. Nerudová signaled her intention to crack down on corruption, with a strong attention given to the country’s climate agenda. She openly gave her support to same-sex marriage and adoption and pledges to anchor the Czech Republic with the West. On the topic of Russia’s war in Ukraine, she also calls for a stronger support to the Ukrainian Army.

Due to her positions, Danuše Nerudová is sometimes nicknamed as the “Czech Zuzana Čaputová”, current president of Slovakia elected in 2019 in the aftermath of the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak. In both countries, however, the role of the president is largely symbolic and ceremonial, with most of the executive power in the hands of the Prime Minister and government.

As shown by the most recent polls, putting her in the lead for the first time, Nerudová’s strongest asset appears to be her track-record, contrary to Pavel late-communist involvement and Babiš’ sulfurous past and present.

Andrej Babiš

The third clear frontrunner in the 2023 presidential election is former Prime Minister and billionaire Andrej Babiš, a key political figure that embodies the transformations of the Czech political landscape during the last 10 years.

Often presented as the “Czech Trump”, the billionaire entrepreneur founder of the agro-industrial giant Agrofert launched a decade ago his political party ANO, which remains centered around his person and based on a “business-like” style of government. Part of the previous ČSSD (center-left)-ANO governing coalition during his term as Finance Minister, he eventually went on winning the 2017 election to become Prime Minister.

“Entrepreuneurish populist”, former StB intelligence agent with an extensive media empire, Andrej Babiš is one of the most divisive figures in Czechia, not only for his political style and abrasive rhetoric, but also for his multiple judicial worries related to suspected EU subsidy fraud, conflict of interest and corruption of one kind or another. Some commentators believe that Babiš is running for president to get immunity for up to 10 years.

Babiš can count on his fortune, media empire and extensive political machinery to boost his campaign, but also on the support of President Zeman. Long linked by what commentators have sometimes dubbed a “tacit pact of mutual assistance”, the two men share a common electorate that can change the fate of the election, as it did in 2018 for Zeman’s reelection.

Usually considered, especially when he entered politics, a center-right politician (ANO seats among the Renew Europe grouping in the European Parliament), Babiš has radicalised his positions in many policy areas over the last few years. On the international scene, the former PM can defend a relatively solid pro-EU and anti-Russian policy: the truth about the Vrbětice terrorist attack, for instance, was revealed during his time in office, prompting the worst diplomatic crisis between Prague and Moscow (that is, until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022).

With polls putting them in the single digits, the other candidates are Pavel Fischer, former Czech ambassador to France and candidate in 2018; independent senator Marek Hilšer; Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions leader Josef Středula; former Charles University rector Tomáš Zima; SPD member of parliament Jaroslav Bašta; and president of Czech Association of Debtors Denisa Rohanová.

By Sebastien Cazabon

Based in France, Sébastien is a politics & administration graduate of Sciences Po – and studied on the Eastern and Central Europe Campus of Dijon. Today he works as an influence strategy and economic intelligence consultant in Paris.

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