In the Czech Republic, former Chief of Staff and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee Petr Pavel has good prospects for the post of President. Pavel emerged as the strongest candidate in the first round of the presidential elections on Friday and Saturday. At 35.4 percent, he only has a wafer-thin lead over the former prime minister Andrei Babis with 34.99 percent, against whom he is going in the runoff on January 27th and 28th. However, the third-placed candidate, Danuše Nerudová (14 percent), has already indicated that she now wants to support Pavel, as have three other applicants who were defeated.
However, with eight candidates, many votes have to be “re-allocated” in the second ballot. As a billionaire and head of his ANO party, Babiš has every opportunity for an intensified election campaign in the next two weeks. He is likely to position himself as an “opposition candidate”. Czech commentators point out that election results cannot be predicted arithmetically and that an exciting or even “dramatic” second round is to be expected. In any case, initial statements by the candidates give reason to fear a mudslinging with personal attacks and alleged revelations.
Pavel, born in 1961 and the son of an officer in what was then the armed forces of communist Czechoslovakia, had been in the army since graduating from the military high school in Opava in 1979 until he retired as a four-star general in 2018. After reunification, he attended staff courses in the USA and Great Britain, and since 2015 he has held the highest NATO post that a European member of the alliance can achieve. During the election campaign, he spoke out in favor of law and order, but in terms of socio-political issues he shows a rather liberal profile.
Pavel, Putin and the term “spy”
Babiš, born in 1954 as the son of a communist foreign trade official, became a billionaire after the end of the Cold War with his Agrofert group (including food production, chemicals, media). In 2012 he founded the ANO party, which wants to appeal to “dissatisfied citizens”, moved into parliament, became finance minister and until 2021 prime minister. He was accused, among others by the EU Commission, of conflicts of interest between the group, which was outsourced to trusteeship, and the state office. There were also allegations of corruption, which Babiš denied. A procedure in a case in which he was accused of subsidy fraud went in his favor shortly before the presidential election.
Babiš accused retired General Pavel of his past in the Czechoslovak army after the election results were announced over the weekend. Pavel was a member of the military reconnaissance troop there, which was trained for missions behind enemy lines, comparable to the long-distance scouts in the German armed forces. In a rhetorical question, Babiš equated this with the Russian secret service KGB, pointing out that Russia is so far the only country in Europe where a former “spy” is president. He also spoke of Pavel’s support for the Warsaw Pact invasion to crush the Prague Spring.
Pavel replied that his competitor’s press conference suggested that he would campaign “only with lies”. Pavel has repeatedly pointed out that a military intelligence service is different from a foreign or even domestic intelligence service, and that his past was examined many times before he began his NATO assignments. According to the Slovak authorities, Babiš was listed as an informant by the Czechoslovak Stasi, which he, of course, denies. Communist party members were Babiš like Pavel.
Pavel spoke of a “great challenge” in which runoff to compete against Babiš, “and I like challenges”. For his part, he accused the former Prime Minister of empty promises, populism and a “departure of democracy from the pro-Western and European course”. Nerudová, a former university rector who was roughly even with the two leading candidates in polls, conceded defeat. She called Pavel the “democratic winner” of the first round. Babiš, on the other hand, is a “great evil” that needs to be defeated. How the cooperation should be designed will be discussed on Monday.
Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who leads a centre-left five-party coalition, has shown sympathy for Pavel. Babiš, on the other hand, was expressly supported by outgoing President Miloš Zeman. In fact, according to the ČTK news agency, Babiš scored best in the constituencies where Zeman was ahead five years ago, albeit with worse results in absolute terms. According to another analysis, Babiš came out ahead in those communities reporting higher rates of poverty, more foreclosures, and lower levels of education. Pavel’s lead over Babiš in the first round was historically narrow since the Czech Republic’s head of state is directly elected. Turnout was high at 68 percent compared to previous elections.