Presidential Election Campaign Enters Final Week: Who Are The Three Leading Candidates?

The three leading candidates: (L-R) Danuse Nerudova, Petr Pavel, Andrej Babis. Credit: Danuse Nerudova, via Facebook; Wikimedia Commons;  

Brno, 9 Dec (BD) – The first round of the election to decide the next president of the Czech Republic will take place this weekend, with voting open from Friday afternoon to Saturday lunchtime. Incumbent President Milos Zeman is prevented from running again by term limits, and a field of eight candidates are lining up to replace him.

Three leading candidates have emerged: Andrej Babis, former Prime Minister and current opposition leader; General Petr Pavel, formerly Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army and Chair of the NATO Military Committee; and Danuse Nerudova, an economist and former Rector of Brno’s Mendel University. All three have placed first in opinion polls in recent weeks, and are currently neck-and-neck. The remaining five candidates are lagging significantly behind in election polling. The top two candidates in this weekend’s election will progress to a second round two weeks later.

Andrej Babis

Babis, 68, is well-known to Czech voters from his previous stints as Prime Minister (2017-21) and Finance Minister (2014-17), and he has used this as a justification for largely avoiding the pre-election campaign debates, in favour of his own campaign events. Babis was a divisive figure as prime minister; his term was dogged by allegations of subsidy fraud and conflicts of interest related to his business dealings, and his government was the target of mass protests in June 2019. He is currently on trial in Prague in relation to the long-running “Capi Hnizdo” case, with a verdict expected later today. 

Nonetheless, Babis remains one of the most popular and trusted politicians in the country, and has strong support among older and rural voters. He has been endorsed by outgoing President Milos Zeman, who praised his experience relative to the other two leading candidates. 

Petr Pavel

General Petr Pavel, 61, is a former army officer, who has served as Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army (2012-15), and Chair of the NATO Military Committee (2015-18). Earlier in his career he was a highly decorated soldier, and saw active service in Bosnia.

With the slogan “Let’s return order and peace to the Czech Republic”, Pavel has sought to emphasise his military and foreign policy expertise. However, he has come under scrutiny and criticism for his membership of the Communist Party while a young soldier in the 1980s.

Danuse Nerudova

Nerudova, 44, is the former Rector of Mendel University in Brno. An economist by profession, she has also served as chair of the Commission for Fair Pensions, and specialises in tax harmonisation between EU countries. 

Considered to have run a slick, media savvy campaign, Nerudova has risen from single figures in early opinion polls to challenge the other leading candidates, and has polled first in the last weeks. She is particularly popular with younger voters, students, and university graduates, but has come under fire for alleged academic malpractice that is said to have taken place at Mendel University while she was rector, though she denies any wrongdoing. If elected, she would become the Czech Republic’s first female president.

Battle lines

By not participating in the televised debates, Babis appears to be following a similar strategy to Zeman’s in 2018, and attempting to frame the election as ‘Babis vs. the rest’. However, Zeman had a commanding lead at this point five years ago, and his opponents were left scrambling to present themselves as the candidate most able to challenge him. 

This time, Babis is just one of three candidates polling at similar levels, with none guaranteed to progress. According to current polling, both Nerudova and Pavel would be set to win comfortably against Babis in the second round head-to-head, though up to a third of voters remain undecided and large shifts are sometimes seen when the candidates are reduced to the final two. Nerudova and Pavel have largely refrained from strong attacks on each other, and both have said they would vote for the other in a second round against Babis.

The trailing candidates have faced pressure to withdraw from the race in favour of similar candidates with a better chance of winning. Last night union leader Josef Stredula became the first to do so, announcing during a televised debate that he was pulling out of the race and endorsing Nerudova. There are therefore eight candidates remaining; Stredula will remain on the ballot but votes for him will be considered invalid.

With polling so close, the identity of the final two candidates is too close to call. However, by the end of January, either Andrej Babis, Petr Pavel, or Danuse Nerudova will have been elected as the 4th President of the Czech Republic.

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