How can populism be defeated? In the Czech presidential election, the populist billionaire Andrej Babis was defeated by the ability of his opponent, Petr Pavel, to build a broad democratic coalition and to mobilize civil society.
Petra Guasti and Lenka Bustikova
March 9, 2023
In January’s presidential election in the Czech Republic, after the most vitriolic campaign in the country’s post-1989 history, Petr Pavel, a retired general and former chief of the NATO Military Committee, defeated the former prime minister and the leader of the largest political party, ANO, Andrej Babis. Populism, lies, and Russian bots were defeated by civility.
Pavel and Babis effectively mobilized voters, which led to a turnout of 70.25% in the second round, the highest for a presidential election and higher than for any parliamentary elections since 2002. Pavel won by almost one million votes, which gave him a strong mandate for the next five years. He appealed to liberal wealthy voters in big cities and to less well-to-do voters in smaller municipalities, including approximately 250,000 former Babis voters.
Babis’s scorched-earth campaign crossed several ethical lines with baseless fearmongering. His claim that the retired general would drag the country into the war in Ukraine was amplified by disinformation sites and chain emails targeting seniors and poor voters. In addition, signs of Russian meddling were detected, including fake information that Pavel had died linked to pro-Russia sites. This fearmongering resulted in some voters panicking and inquiring about mobilization orders for their sons and grandsons at their municipalities.
Babis’s campaign manager, Tünde Bartha, defended the campaign in a viral interview that highlighted the responsiveness of populism to societal moods and its irresponsibility. She said: “We are not creating fear, we are responding to the voice of the people.” Bartha defended the use of war as a key mobilizing concern identified by internal campaign surveys. For Bartha, the end justified the means, no matter how polarizing or ethically questionable the tactic is. In order to win, the campaign was willling to sow deep divisions in society. In a rare moment of “pulling the campaign curtain,” she mentioned drawing on Viktor Orban’s tactics and rhetoric. Unfortunately for the Babis campaign, this backfired as the fear of Hungarian-style descent into illiberalism mobilized liberal voters, who were initially lukewarm toward Pavel.
Pavel’s campaign focused on hope and evoked the legacy of Vaclav Havel, the dissident turned first democratic president. Havel’s motto that “truth and love will win over lies and hatred” resonated in a society appalled by Babis’s vitriol. Filled squares in small and large cities were a reminder of the atmosphere of hope at the onset of democratization. The battle with Babis was portrayed as an existential struggle for the country’s soul and future. Pavel’s campaign song, a Czech version of the “We shall overcome” gospel, was a direct reference to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Pavel’s signature flannel shirts were adopted by his supporters across generations, creating viral social media moments that captured younger voters.
The campaigns vied for additional votes for the second round, with Pavel’s appeal proving much broader. He was endorsed by three candidates from the first round, including Danuse Nerudova and Pavel Fischer. Both gave Pavel’s campaign access to their resources and volunteer networks, lent him billboards, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him at rallies. Such active support in the runoff was an important departure from the previous two presidential campaigns, where Milos Zeman’s opponents only ineffectively endorsed his second-round opponents.
Nerudova, who came third in the first round, appealed to the young generation. At the same time, she served as Pavel’s “attack dog” by calling Babis ”the evil that must be defeated.” Fischer was significant for securing a small but important catholic vote in multiple interviews on catholic channels and in rallies. Fischer’s strong endorsement of a candidate whose past he sees as a problem is further evidence of the importance of moderate confessional parties in resisting democratic backsliding.
Pavel and Babis were members of the Communist Party before 1989, which deterred conservative voters. Fischer, alongside numerous priests, vouched for Pavel’s narrative of redemption of the communist sin through 30 years of service to the country’s democracy as a military officer. The actions by Nerudova and Fischer prevented the demobilization and abstention of liberal voters and helped the realignment to Pavel in the two weeks between the first and the second rounds.
Babis, one of the Czech Republic’s wealthiest businessmen, had a steep hill to climb to victory. In the runoff, he had to square the circle: demobilize Pavel’s voters, mobilize his voters, and attract supporters of the radical right and the radical left. Impulsive and lacking finesse, he failed spectacularly. Babis became increasingly agitated during presidential faceoffs and press conferences. In one televised debate, he answered “no” three times when asked if he would send troops to Poland and the Baltic states in case of an attack by Russia. This denial of NATO’s Article 5 obligations was a misstep widely covered by domestic and foreign media. The government, the incumbent president and Babis himself had to reassure allies that the country stands by its commitments.
Voters opted for a former general without experience in party politics, who is firmly pro-West and pro-Ukraine, and who supports gay marriage, regulated euthanasia, and legalized marijuana. The decorated war hero also appealed to those who longed for law-abiding and well-mannered leadership in Prague Castle as well as to those who perceive the current government as too conservative on issues such as same-sex marriage, gender equality, and legalization of marijuana.
While the constitutional powers of the Czech president are limited in most policy areas, the president shapes foreign policy together with the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs. Before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, President Zeman was pulling foreign policy toward Russia and China. Pavel’s first phone calls as president-elect were to the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, and Taiwan. In February, as president-elect, he attended the Munich Security Conference, where he conducted bilateral and multilateral meetings with Western leaders (including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu, and Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauseda).
On election day, Babis graciously conceded defeat and congratulated Pavel. In February, an internal party reckoning began in ANO, with two important figures defecting to Pavel – the mayor of Ostrava and the regional governor of the Moravian-Silesian Region, who lost their party leadership positions while fighting for their political survival against the internal ANO machine. Babis has made his next steps clear. As an appeal to radical-right voters and simultaneously an attempt to stabilize the ANO centrist vote by fierce anti-government rhetoric, he said: “We will give the government hell in the parliament”. This announces the intensification of ANO’s obstructionist tactics in parliament.
The Czech Republic now has a pro-West non-partisan “citizen President” in Pavel. He collected over 80,000 signatures for his candidacy and is not beholden to political parties. He is sympathetic to many policies of the center-right government but more progressive on many issues. Unlike his predecessor, Pavel is expected to use his veto powers cautiously. Crucially, his victory led the outgoing Zeman to abandon his attempt at nominating a new president of the Constitutional Court before the end of the tenure of the incumbent head. This step out of the regional “illiberal playbook” would have led to the paralysis of a court that has diligently guarded democracy for the past 30 years. During his tenure, Pavel will have the opportunity to nominate 13 of the court’s 15 judges.
On election day, Prime Minister Petr Fiala congratulated Pavel and celebrated his victory as a third defeat of populism and the return of decency to Prague Castle. In a rare step, Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova rushed to Prague to congratulate Pavel personally. At a press conference, she reiterated the special bond between Czechs and Slovaks, and she welcomed the victory of truth and civility over lies and disinformation. Pavel and Caputova announced a joint visit to Ukraine in the spring. Caputova will face a steep battle for reelection in 2024 and will oversee this year’s, possibly watershed, parliamentary elections in Slovakia.
“Pavel won by almost one million votes, appealing to liberal wealthy voters in big cities and to less well-to-do voters in smaller municipalities, including approximately 250,000 former Babis voters.”
When the dust settles, Babis’s 2.4 million frustrated voters will look for representation. As prime minister, Babis destroyed the social democrats and communists by winning over their voters. Currently, he is on a quest to expand his voting coalition by cannibalizing the far right, which are often concentrated in poor border regions. However, his catch-all efforts to appeal to the extremes on the right and the left are a double-edged sword. Moderate voters and politicians from ANO are jumping the party’s ship, which is seemingly heading toward extremism. However, Babis is gearing up for the European Parliament and Senate elections (for one-third of the chamber) in 2024 and for the parliamentary elections in 2025, and he will be eyeing the left-behind border regions.
As president-elect, Pavel has reached out to Babis’s voters. He has evoked decency, dignity, and the rule of law as binding principles of citizenship. In addition, Pavel emphasized that the future of the Czech Republic is intertwined with the European Union and NATO. To bridge differences, Pavel’s first visits before his inauguration were to the disadvantaged regions where he did not win a majority. He was greeted with cheers by predominantly Roma children in an elementary school of Usti nad Labem.
Internationally and domestically, Pavel’s victory is a civilizational choice. It sets an important precedent for the liberal forces in the region, showing that populism can be defeated by unity and appeal to common values of decency and dignity.
Petra Guasti is an associate professor of democratic theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Petra’s research focuses on reconfiguring the political landscape and revolves around representation, democratization, and populism. In AUTHLIB, Petra leads the work package on minipublics.
Lenka Bustikova is an associate professor in European Union and comparative East European politics at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on party politics, voting behavior, clientelism, and state capacity. Her 2019 book, Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press) won the Davis Center Book Prize in political and social studies.
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Credit for maps: Martin Šimon
Photo credit: Helena Zezulkova