A Transformative Czech Election And Its Implications For The Post-Communist Region – Analysis
By Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute
By Robert Beck*
(FPRI) — The recent election of former Army General Petr Pavel to the Presidency of the Czech Republic carries significant implications for the state of democracy in the country, for continued Czech support to Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia, and for Prague’s growing influence as a bastion of democratic stability in the otherwise troubled heartland of the European continent. As a candidate, Pavel repeatedly stressed themes reminiscent of the country’s first post-1989 president, Václav Havel, specifically promising to champion democracy, human rights, dignity, and equality before the law in domestic and foreign policy once elected.
Since its birth as an independent nation following the Velvet Divorce at the end of 1992 from its erstwhile long-time partner Slovakia, the Czech Republic had only three presidents until March 8, 2023. From the viewpoint of Washington and the European Union (EU), those three men could realistically be called the good, the bad, and the ugly with the occupants of the office for the past twenty years finding common ground more frequently with Hungary’s Viktor Orban than their counterparts in Berlin, Paris, and London.
Václav Havel served as the first Czech head of state from 1993–2003 and was widely considered one of the leading political figures of the immediate post-communist era in Central and Eastern Europe. Famous for his dissident activities in the 1970s and 1980s that helped chip away at the perceived power and control of the Czechoslovak Communist authorities, Havel became, as president, a symbol of the Czech Republic’s return to its rightful place as a liberal, democratic state in the center of Europe. Along with Poland’s Lech Walesa, Havel played a critical role in leading the nascent democracies of Central Europe in their transition from political and economic subordination to Moscow to become key new member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU.
Succeeding Havel at the Prague Castle as president was Václav Klaus, a former economist who became the Czech Republic’s first prime minister, serving in that position from 1993–1998. During that period, he was frequently at odds with President Havel over their divergent views on economic transition and Klaus’s innate Euroscepticism. As president from 2003–2013, Klaus espoused controversial views on European integration, the adoption of the Euro, and the effect of humans on climate change. To an extent, he offered the EU a glimpse of what was to come with Viktor Orbán’s ascension to power in Hungary.
From 2013 until March 2023, Miloš Zeman served as the country’s third president. Zeman, the first Czech Republic president directly elected by voters—Havel and Klaus were both selected by the country’s parliament—came into office as a center-left former prime minister who had overseen the country’s accession to NATO in 1999. As president, however, Zeman frequently stirred controversy with his populist, anti-immigration, pro-Russian, and pro-Chinese rhetoric. As such, often enough President Zeman out-Orbaned Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Despite these blemishes, or perhaps because of them given the polarization of Czech society at the time, Zeman narrowly won reelection in 2018. During his second term, Zeman’s popularity declined precipitously as most Czechs became increasingly embarrassed by his openly pro-Putin views as well as his debilitating health problems.
There is now, however, a new leader on the Czech presidential stage as former Army General Petr Pavel won a resounding victory in late January of this year over former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a Moscow-leaning billionaire surrounded by scandal. Pavel’s ascendance to the Czech presidency has significant implications for Czech foreign policy, specifically concerning the war in Ukraine, the future of democracy in the Czech Republic, and the position of the country as a bulwark of stability in an unsettled region.
Perhaps the most salient issue during the recent campaign, particularly in the two-week runoff stage which culminated in Pavel’s election on January 28 2023, was the war in Ukraine. Pavel, who served as the chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 2015–18, consistently called for NATO to take a harder line against the Russians while his main competitor, Babiš, focused on a diplomatic solution to the crisis, claiming his first priority regarding Ukraine as president would be to strive for peace “usilovat o mír.”
As part of Babiš’s campaign, he consistently painted Pavel as a dangerous warmonger who would drag the Czechs into a wider war. Babiš went so far in one of the final debates of the campaign to question the Czech Republic’s commitment to NATO’s Article Five should Russia attack Poland or the Baltic States. His scare tactics proved unsuccessful as Pavel received over 58% of the vote in the runoff election, which featured, at 70% of the eligible voters, the highest level of participation of any Czech presidential direct election.
Following his resounding victory, Pavel doubled down on his pro-Ukrainian stance, assuring President Zelensky of the Czech Republic’s continued support in one of his first phone calls with foreign leaders. He then told the BBC on February 1, 2023 that Ukraine would be ready to join NATO as soon as the war was over. Two days later, Pavel opined in an interview with Bloomberg TV that the West should supply any type of armament Kiev requests, except for nuclear weapons.
The president-elect’s statements about China clearly indicate that his foreign policy focus will not be limited to the Russian threat. Drawing the immediate ire of Beijing, Pavel spoke via telephone with Taiwan’s president soon after being elected. Furthermore, he commented to the Financial Times in a February 1, 2023 interview that “China and its regime is not a friendly country at this moment, it is not compatible with western democracies in their strategic goals and principles.” These actions represent a stark contrast to the pro-Chinese policies of the former Czech President, Miloš Zeman, and are more in line with the views of the country’s first president, Václav Havel, who tirelessly promoted respect for human rights and democratic governance.
The populist wave that washed across the European continent in the past decade did not spare the Czech Republic. Many observers argue that the combination of Zeman as president and Babiš as prime minister from 2017–2021 represented a significant threat to the country’s democratic institutions. Babiš’s time as prime minister was marred by numerous scandals, mostly tied to purported conflicts of interest involving his extensive business empire.
Meanwhile, President Zeman ruled over a secretive presidency that often prioritized relations with Russia and China over the EU and NATO. In one particularly illuminating incident, Zeman openly questioned the country’s intelligence and security forces’ collective analysis that Russian agents had been behind the massive explosion in 2014 of an arms depot in Vrbětice that housed armaments and ammunition destined for Ukraine.
The Czech populist tide began to subside in 2020 with the elections to the country’s Senate, as the opposition center right parties took 26 of 27 of the available seats from Prime Minister Babiš’s ANO (Akce nespokojených občanů: Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) party. In the subsequent October 2021 legislative elections, a coalition of opposition parties scored a parliamentary majority, ending Babiš’s four year run as the prime minister.
The significance of the recent presidential results is that they unmistakably manifest the retreat of populism in Czech politics as Babiš, who was openly supported by outgoing President Zeman, and his party were soundly defeated by former General Pavel. Cumulatively, the three elections unquestionably demonstrate a longing in the Czech electorate for a less polemical, more dispassionate, thoughtful, Eurocentric approach to the nation’s governance.
In a lead article in the January 30, 2023 edition of the Czech weekly Respekt, editor Erik Tabery proclaimed that “lies and populism lost” in the presidential election. Meanwhile, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, who appeared with president-elect Pavel at an election celebration in Prague on January 28, praised Pavel: “Your victory is a victory of hope, that decency and truthfulness is not weakness. I am so pleased that our region and Europe is gaining a head of state who honors European values.”
The fact that the new president, who took office on March 9, 2023, won nearly 60% of the vote in the face of Babiš’s hyperbolic rhetoric about Pavel sending Czech sons and daughters off to war is testament to a growing political maturity among a significant portion of the Czech populace. It also speaks to a realization that whatever the warts of the European bureaucracy in Brussels and Strasbourg may be, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has removed any doubt about where the secure, prosperous future of the country resides. Pavel’s election is vindication of that premise.
The Czechs inhabit a region of the continent currently beset by deep political instability. To the east, the Slovak Republic is heading for early elections in September 2023 following the collapse of the coalition government in December of 2022. While the country’s president, the aforementioned Zuzana Čaputová, is well-respected in the EU, polling shows strong support for the lead opposition party, SMER, whose leader Robert Fico opposes sanctions against Russia and the provision of military support to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Hungary continues to be the black sheep of the EU, with Orbán openly calling for Ukraine to quit the war. In late December 2022, the EU froze approximately 22 billion euros of cohesion funds previously earmarked for Budapest due to Hungary’s lack of progress on judicial independence, corruption, and academic freedom. It seems clear that if Orbán is in power, the country will continue to challenge EU unity on multiple issues, particularly relating to the Ukraine crisis.
The response of the Czech Republic’s other former Warsaw Pact neighbor, Poland, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has temporarily sidelined EU concerns about Warsaw’s commitment to the rule of law. Nevertheless, Polish legislative elections are scheduled for the fall of 2023, campaigning for which will likely raise the needle on the political instability scale.
Against this Central European backdrop, the election of President Pavel marks the Czech Republic as a veritable rock of European stability in an otherwise fractious region. The recent electoral successes of the center-right coalition parties, followed by the rejection of Babiš’s populist rhetoric in the January 2023 presidential runoff, improve Prague’s stature regionally and in the wider EU as a bulwark of European values and enduring support to Ukraine.
The country’s rising status was on full display in the second half of 2022 when the Czechs served as the EU’s rotating president, deftly leading the bloc through difficult negotiations on energy policy, strengthening the sanction regime against Moscow, and hosting the initial summit meeting of the nascent European Political Community.
Given that the winds of political change blow briskly across the Central European landscape, there is no guarantee that Prague’s recent move to the democratic center will be sustainable in the long term. However, the election of Petr Pavel to the Czech presidency marks an important inflection point, away from the failed populism of the past towards a more stable, politically moderate future for the country.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Robert “Bob” Beck served overseas for nearly 30 years, as a member of the US foreign policy community, in embassies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He has a BA in Soviet and Eastern European Studies from the University of Maryland and an MA in International Relations from Boston University.
Source: This article was published by FPRI