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Intelligence Specialist Emma Letham: The Czech Presidential Special

About the author:

Emma is a final-year student of Area Studies at the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences, specialising in American Studies. Her research interests encompass critical approaches to International Relations and, by virtue of her job, CEE politics. She curates the PRINCEPS Advisory blog.

In a landslide election on the 28th of January, the Czech Republic elected political newcomer Petr Pavel as its new president, decisively defeating the former prime minister Andrej Babiš. But who is the new president and what tone can we expect him to set for the upcoming five years?

President Pavel

The newly elected president is a former chief of the general staff of the Czech Army and a chairman of the NATO Committee. His international diplomatic credentials constituted the backbone of his campaign, emphasising the promise of calm and orderly management, and his lifelong contributions to the country’s security. Throughout the race, he presented himself as a firm supporter of the country’s EU and NATO membership and its commitment to Ukraine. It is perhaps unsurprising that reassurance appealed to voters in the midst of the invasion of Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, and after a decade of confrontational politics displayed by his predecessor Miloš Zeman.

While the office of the Czech President is more ceremonial and representative than executive, the symbolism associated with it is significant. Both in the run-up and in the aftermath, Pavel’s supporters as well as the candidate himself presented the election as a fight for the defense of “democratic values”. In his victory speech, Pavel dubbed the occasion the victory of “truth, dignity, respect, and humility”. This perception stems from the defeat of Mr Babiš and his populist style of politics, as well as his particularly aggressive campaign. The significance of the election was underpinned by the record attendance of over 70% during the second round, the highest in Czech presidential election history.

Analysts expect Mr Pavel to actively engage in office beyond the traditional “wreath-bearing” role. He has already voiced the intention to establish a dialogue with the Government and the opposition and act as a unifying agent in both the public and the wider political landscape. At the same time, however, the newly elected President seems less if at all prone to the backstage power play and machinations characteristic of the Zeman presidency.

Changing the (Castle) guard

Mr Pavel’s discourse already presents a notable change to what had seemingly become the norm in Czech politics: populist promises, exaggerated threats and non-transparent schemes. In his victory speech on Saturday, Mr Pavel reassured the voters of Mr Babiš of his aim to work for the electorate as a whole. This is supported by Mr Pavel’s imminent plans to visit the structurally less developed regions of the country in which he lost and his wish to actively work for change, as he stated in a radio interview on the day after his victory. Hearing the president directly address the social and structural issues of the country as well as an active interest in their resolution is somewhat of a change after two decades of what could be dubbed as relatively passive presidencies. His concrete plans and strategies remain unknown, however.

This more active approach also translates into Mr Pavel’s intention to actively communicate with both the government and opposition, which has been welcomed by Prime Minister Fiala, as well as opposition MP Alena Schillerová (ANO). At the same time, however, analysts are expecting Mr Pavel to be more mindful of the constitutional restrictions of his office and thus unlikely to think of himself as the “third chamber of Parliament”. This would again be in stark contrast with President Zeman’s record of numerous breaches of the constitution.

A new addition to the Czech political climate is also the shared stance of the president-elect and the government on official state foreign policy, particularly in terms of the country’s commitment to the European Union and NATO, as well as the support of Ukraine, which he is already planning on personally visiting. This will once again present a change compared to Mr Zeman’s activities, all of which were centred around nurturing business relationships with China and Russia, that is until his denouncement of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

A new political climate?

All of course depends on whether and how Mr Pavel manages to uphold his intentions during his term in office. If the indications above hold true, however, Czech politics may be in for a term of unprecedented cohesion and clarity, hopefully setting aside the backstage power play and machinations the Castle is currently known for. On the other hand, it would be foolish to consider the era of Czech populism at an end. Mr Babiš and his party may be forced to reflect and potentially recalibrate their strategy but losing with 2,4 million votes is far from a mere defeat. The numbers show Mr Babiš attracted voters from a number of the opposition parties and despite some mixed messaging, it is unlikely that he will abandon his political career any time soon.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how much of his unifying potential the new President fulfills. In a society still divided and tainted by a long and at times lawless election campaign, he is not in for an easy task.

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