Jiří Přibáň comments the outcome of the recent presidential elections in the Czech Republic.
Jiří Přibáň is professor of law and founding director of the Centre of Law and Society at Cardiff University. He has published and edited numerous books in English and Czech such as Constitutional Imaginaries (2022), Sovereignty in Post-Sovereign Society (2015), Legal Symbolism (2007) and Dissidents of Law (2002). He regularly contributes to the Czech and international media.
Populists can be beaten in popular elections and constitutional democracy successfully defended against its enemies. This is a core message of the 2023 Czech presidential election in which Petr Pavel, a retired general and former Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, managed to defeat former Prime Minister and leader of populist movement ANO, Andrej Babiš.
Following the 2021 Chamber of Deputies election (the lower chamber of Parliament of the Czech Republic) and the 2022 Senate election (the upper chamber), this already is a third loss of Babiš in democratic contestations. Despite significant differences in electoral systems and political dynamics of each election, this series of losses, nevertheless, reveals general trends and specific contexts of Czech constitutional politics. They help to understand the decisive victory of Petr Pavel and current limits of populist politics in the Czech Republic.
First, Pavel qualified for the ballot after gathering over 80,000 signatures from citizens while Babiš qualified after achieving enough signatures from MPs of his political movement. Pavel was thus the citizens’ candidate whose campaign substantially benefited from civil society activities and persistent opposition to the populist government Babiš led between 2017 and 2021. These protests and petitions were led by A Million Moments for Democracy movement which organised the biggest demonstrations since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, calling for the resignation of Babiš and his justice secretary Marie Benešová in 2019.
Pavel was thus the citizens’ candidate whose campaign substantially benefited from civil society activities and persistent opposition to the populist government Babiš led between 2017 and 2021.Tweet
The public mobilisation in last five years contributed to the establishment of both conservative and liberal party coalitions which won the parliamentary election in 2021. The same mobilisation from all parts of the democratic public accompanied the 2023 presidential election after Andrej Babiš decided to stand and the contest essentially became a matter of choice between his populist politics and constitutional democracy.
The second reason of Pavel’s success, therefore, is the election’s symbolic image as a battle between constitutional democracy and populist government. Babiš’s political style was perceived as risking a continuation of the destabilising and destructive presidency of Miloš Zeman whose infamous pro-Chinese and pro-Russian positions made him a deeply divisive and increasingly unpopular figure in Czech politics. Babiš’s confrontational and extremist rhetoric during the presidential campaign only confirmed such fears regarding his intention to continue of Zeman’s politics by other means.
Babiš’s confrontational and extremist rhetoric during the presidential campaign only confirmed such fears regarding his intention to continue of Zeman’s politics by other means.Tweet
Third, democratic candidates eliminated in the first round of the election, most notably Danuše Nerudová, a liberal candidate gathering almost 14 per cent of the votes, and Pavel Fischer, a conservative liberal candidate with nearly 7 per cent of the votes, not only endorsed Petr Pavel in the second round but also offered their resources, logistics and teams to help the Pavel campaign. This support proved vital as Nerudová’s younger and liberal supporters almost unanimously voted for Pavel in the run-off election.
Fourth, Pavel’s campaign realised that democracy has its social dimension. His team successfully targeted poorer regions and socially marginalised communities living in precarious conditions. One of the most surprising outcomes of the election was Pavel’s support outside Prague and other large and prosperous cities. He spent a lot of time travelling around the country in the last three years and his restrained communication style with his appeal to the ‘calm and order’ became a trustworthy alternative to the boastful one of Andrej Babiš.
One of the most surprising outcomes of the election was Pavel’s support outside Prague and other large and prosperous cities.Tweet
Finally, the Ukraine war has reshaped European politics and Pavel represents a clear pro-European voice while his former NATO career also strengthens transatlantic relations at these dangerous times. One of the biggest mistakes of Babiš’s campaign was an attempt to portray Pavel as a warmonger who would drag the Czech Republic to the war.
Drawing on the politics of negative emotions which helped Milos Zeman in the past, Babiš’s escalation of the campaign in the second round, however, backfired for historical reasons. He miscalculated the Ukrainian refugee crisis when he criticised the government as not doing enough for ‘our people’ while ignoring Czech historical experiences behind the support of Ukraine. The Munich 1938 trauma and the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968 has made the Czech public suspicious of Babiš’s promises of a peace conference. His remark that he would not send troops to help Poland or the Baltic states despite the Czech Republic’s NATO treaty obligations, though quickly corrected by his team, was another spectacular blunder during the critical stage of the campaign.
Babiš miscalculated the Ukrainian refugee crisis when he criticised the government as not doing enough for ‘our people’ while ignoring Czech historical experiences behind the support of Ukraine.Tweet
In short, Petr Pavel’s victory was a rejection of political extremism. It sends a clear message that populists with their politics of fear can be defeated and constitutional democracy, though under strain in so many countries of the EU, can prevail by integrating its civic and social dimensions.