Czechs choose a new president

Czechia goes to the polls tomorrow in the first round of its presidential election. If (as is overwhelmingly likely) no candidate wins a majority, a second round will be held a fortnight later. Czechia has a parliamentary system, so the position is mostly ceremonial, but in the past it has often had some political importance.

Incumbent Miloš Zeman, in office since 2013, is prevented by term limits from running again, and would be most unlikely to be a candidate in any case: he has had serious health problems and many observers seem surprised that he has survived this long. Five years ago he won re-election narrowly with 51.4% against liberal challenger Jiří Drahoš.

At the time I said that Zeman “embodies much of what is so frightening about recent politics in Europe: authoritarian, racist, protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-EU and apparently beholden to Vladimir Putin.” Nonetheless, he has not disturbed Czechia’s constitutional order; his support was unable to protect his occasional ally, populist billionaire Andrej Babiš, from defeat in the 2021 election, and he broke with Putin after last year’s invasion of Ukraine.

There are eight candidates vying to replace him, but only three are given any serious chance: former prime minister Babiš, retired general Petr Pavel and economist and university professor Danuše Nerudová (the only woman in the field). Babiš has been endorsed by his own party, ANO, while the governing centre-right alliance, Spolu, has given a joint endorsement to Pavel, Nerudová and another candidate, senator Pavel Fischer.

Opinion polls show the top three very close together in the first round, but (with the usual caveat about the unreliability of hypothetical polls) also show either Pavel or Nerudová beating Babiš comfortably in a runoff. Fischer and the far-right’s Jaroslav Bašta are both languishing in single digits; the centre-left’s Josef Středula, who was the only other competitive candidate, withdrew last week and endorsed Nerudová.

Under new prime minister Petr Fiala, Czechia has been a strong ally of Ukraine and has just completed a successful six-month term in the rotating presidency of the European Union. The last thing Fiala would want to see would be his controversial predecessor elected as president, with the ability to make trouble for him. But although Babiš may receive a boost from his acquittal on Monday on fraud charges, it seems unlikely that Czech voters will want to undo the 2021 election result.

Meanwhile in neighboring Slovakia, which separated from Czechia just on thirty years ago, an early election is on the cards after the government of Eduard Heger was defeated on a no-confidence vote on 15 December. This followed the desertion of one of its coalition partners, the right-liberal Freedom & Solidarity, which argued that the government was leaning too far to the right.

An election is not otherwise due until February next year. Current polls show the new centre-left party, Voice–Social Democracy, leading the field, but also the likelihood of great difficulty in putting together a majority, with eight parties polling above the 5% threshold.

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