January 29, 2023 - 11:21am

Czech presidential elections ended on Saturday with a crushing victory for former NATO chief Petr Pavel, who won 58% of the second-round vote ahead of controversial ex-prime minister and current opposition leader Andrej Babiš. 

While the Czech president performs a largely ceremonial role, this election was seen as a bellwether for Central and Eastern European politics in a new era of war. The debate focused on the country’s NATO commitments — Babiš caused international uproar by suggesting he would refuse to send Czechs to defend Poland or the Baltic states if they were attacked — and even more significantly, it showed the yawning chasm now separating the region’s pro-establishment and populist politicians.   

And just as many Republicans in the USA now see a need to move out of the shadow cast by Donald Trump, so too may Babiš’s resounding defeat lead Czechs opposed to the country’s pro-EU internationalist consensus to seek out a less divisive leader. 

It would be hard to find a more pro-establishment president than Pavel. A member of the Communist Party before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, Pavel switched to become a firm advocate of integration within the Western international order. On many issues, from his belief that the Czech Republic should adopt the euro, to his staunch opposition to Russian influence, Pavel is at the vanguard of the nation’s pro-Western orthodoxy. 

This movement views Czech anti-EU nationalism with horror. Both Pavel and prime minister Petr Fiala have implied that those opposed to EU membership and support for Ukraine are “extremists” — during the presidential campaign, Pavel even suggested that as head of state he would refuse to appoint members of the eurosceptic SPD party as ministers, citing national security concerns. These politicians portray the most fundamental questions facing the country as out of the bounds of polite discussion.   

This sleight of hand is possible only thanks to the controversial nature of their great enemy. Loathing for Babiš among more well-educated and urban parts of Czech society is on a par with perceptions of Trump in the USA. After first-round voting earlier this month, defeated progressive candidate Danuše Nerudová endorsed Pavel by telling supporters that “there is a great evil here, and its name is Andrej Babiš.” 

Such aversion isn’t attributable to any ideological conviction on Babiš’s part. Unlike Hungary’s prime minister and fellow “populist” Viktor Orbán, Babiš is not a man of firm beliefs. In fact, he is a much truer “populist” in the derogatory sense of the word — he adapts his priorities to public sentiment and wins votes by provoking establishment politicians and the media. 

While conceding defeat, Babiš put a positive spin on things, pointing out that he received more votes alone than the current five-party coalition government did when it beat his ANO party in the last general election in 2021. But after successive losses, those in his own camp may now wonder whether their talisman has become a distraction from the real issues facing the country. 

Like Trump, Babiš has dominated by making his own personality the centre of the political solar system. But in Central Europe, as in America, social divisions are becoming too fundamental for such wacky wildcards to represent anti-establishment politics. Babiš’s defeat may now leave the door open for a more serious intellectual force to challenge the Czech Republic’s consensus.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz