In the wake of the election of General Petr Pavel as Czech President, several things happened. The Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová rushed to Prague to congratulate Pavel personally and in a good-humored press conference reiterated the special bond between Czechs and Slovaks, and — rather pointedly — welcomed the victory of truth and civility over lies and disinformation. Pavel and Čaputová announced a joint visit to Ukraine in the spring.  The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen phoned in to congratulate Pavel and invite him to Brussels for talks. Pavel announced a trip to Poland. 

It’s fair to say that the celebratory mood, the flood of invitations and visits would not have occurred if his opponent, the populist billionaire Andrej Babiš had won. His bitter campaign had included a pledge not to meet the Czech Republic’s treaty obligation to defend other NATO allies in the event of aggression (this was swiftly rowed back) and criticisms of military aid to Ukraine. 

So the pro-Ukraine and pro-NATO forces at home and abroad were much encouraged. The often-irascible and unpredictable nature of Pavel’s two predecessors — Miloš Zeman and Václav Klaus — had long been an irritant in the country’s relationship with its European Union (EU) and other allies, although the damage done was limited by the constrained powers of the Czech presidency. 

Now that it has a liberal-democratic, though formally non-party, head of state, the country’s government, and presidency are largely in lockstep. Both institutions are solidly pro-European and determined to maintain the country’s established role as a top 10 military contributor to Ukraine. 

There will also be fewer dramas when the Czech head of state speaks (Zeman was often pro-Russian and pro-Chinese in his comments, and his final trip abroad was to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary), at least in the democratic world. It is true that China reacted very poorly when President Pavel spoke to the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at the end of January, an act of such disdain to the communist superpower that it might almost be considered an act of homage to his much-admired predecessor, Václav Havel, who also delighted in twisting the dictatorial tail. The new Havelian atmosphere at Prague Castle is clear. 

Photo: Cloropleth map showing electoral mobilization in the Czech Presidential Election 2023 (between the first and second rounds.) Credit: Martin Šimon

Pavel achieved the biggest winning margin since the presidency moved to a direct election in 2008, beating Babiš by 58%-42%. The campaign was the most vitriolic in post-1989 Czech history, and voters believed the outcome mattered — the turnout was a historic 70.25% in the second round, the highest not only in the Czech presidential elections but also in any parliamentary elections since 2002. He appealed both to liberal, wealthy voters in big cities and to less well-to-do voters in smaller municipalities. Babiš’s support was concentrated in the economically lagging border and industrial areas. 

Babiš, who was prime minister until evicted by voters in 2021, employed scorched earth tactics crossing several ethical lines with baseless fear-mongering. Babiš’s main claim — that Pavel planned to send Czech forces to fight in Ukraine — was amplified by disinformation sites and chain emails that targeted seniors and poorer voters. Some voters panicked and inquired about fake mobilization orders for their sons and grandsons at local municipalities. Signs of Russian meddling were detected, including fake information that Pavel had actually died.  

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Pavel’s campaign focused on hope and evoked the legacy of Havel, the dissident-turned-democratic statesman. The late president’s revolutionary motto “truth and love will triumph over lies and hate” resonated among those appalled by the businessman’s vitriol. Packed public meetings in the squares in small and large cities evoked the atmosphere of hope from the 1989 Velvet revolution and Pavel’s signature flannel shirts were adopted by his supporters who declared a new “Flannel revolution.”  

Pavel was endorsed by three candidates from the first round, including Danuše Nerudová and Pavel Fischer. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Pavel at rallies and provided him with campaign resources and their volunteer networks. Nerudová appealed to the younger generation and served as Pavel’s “attack dog” by calling Babiš “the evil that must be defeated.” Fischer mobilized the Catholic vote.  

Babiš had to square the circle in the run-off: demobilize Pavel’s voters, mobilize his own, and attract the extremist vote. Impulsive and lacking finesse, he failed, despite support from his fellow Eurosceptic, Zeman. He became increasingly agitated during presidential face-offs and press conferences. In one televised debate, Babis answered “no” three times when asked whether he would send troops to defend Poland and the Baltics in the event of an armed attack. His public renunciation of NATO’s Article 5 obligation was widely covered by the media. To decrease tensions, the Czech government, the incumbent president, and Babiš himself had to reassure allies that the Czech Republic will honor its treaty commitments.  

Photo: Cloropleth map showing electoral participation in the Czech Presidential Election 2023 (second round.) Credit: Martin Šimon

Pavel has won and yet, when the dust settles, 2,400,046 of Babiš’s frustrated voters will look for representation. As a Prime Minister, Babiš destroyed social democrats and communists (forcing both out of parliament) by stealing their voters. He plans to continue leading his ANO party which remains one of the strongest parliamentary parties. Currently, he is on a quest to expand his voting coalition by cannibalizing the far right, although that has caused moderate voters and ANO politicians to jump ship. But he clearly intends to fight on, and is preparing for elections in 2024 and 2025. After much speculation, Babiš will remain an MP. but he never shows up at parliament, which gives him time to mobilize the left-behind municipalities. 

As a new president, Pavel reached out to Babis’s voters with an anti-populist message. Even before the inauguration, he plans on visiting structurally disadvantaged regions. In his election speech, he evoked decency, dignity, and the rule of law as binding principles of citizenship. He sees the Czech future as part of the EU and NATO. That will disappoint many extreme online activists, and the Kremlin too.  

Lenka Bustikova is an Associate Professor in European Union and Comparative East European Politics at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism, and state capacity. Her 2019 book, ‘Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe’ (Cambridge University Press) won the Davis Center Book Prize in political and social studies. 

Petra Guasti is an Associate Professor of Democratic Theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Petra’s research focuses on reconfiguring the political landscape and revolves around representation, democratization, and populism.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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