Presidential Elections in Czechia: struggle of oligarchs and lobbies [VIDEO]

In the time of crisis, soaring prices, inflation and rising unemployment, citizens of Czechia vote for president. In the second round, former chief of staff of Czech army Petr Pavel will face the former Prime Minister Andrej Babis – in the first round, their results were almost identical. Veronika Susova-Salminen, the co-creator of Cross-Border Talks, explains who voted for the general, promising more law and order, and which social groups preferred Babis. She also explains how key concerns of Czech citizens, including rising unemployment and soaring prices, went unanswered during this presidential campaign and how the only left-leaning candidate disappointed his potential voters.

Full transcription of the video is available below.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Good evening – or good morning or good afternoon – everybody. In C rossborder talks today, we are meeting you in an unusual way because Veronika Susova-Salminen, who is the co-creator and co-host of our programs, will be the guest today. The reason for this are the presidential elections in Czechia. Czechia, the southern neighbor of Poland, is an important country in Central Europe. And according to some commentators in Poland, where, of course, these elections are followed, these elections will determine the model of Czech politics, the model of Czech presidency, and the very standards of Czech public life. We will now find out is it really so, at what is at stake at these elections? We will also try to find out if there is any substance in Czech politics or whether there is just post-politics, or the politics without real meanings, left? And where is Czech society in all this, given that we witnessed really mass protests in Prague this year, people expressing discontent about rising prices, about the participation of the country in effort of supporting Ukraine, but also for other reasons connected to the general crisis of livelihood.

I will be hosting this episode together with my friend Vladimir Mitter, whom you know very well. Veronika Susova-Salminen, as you have already said, will be our guest today. Veronika, the Czech historian and expert on everything Eastern Europe. And before we ask the first question, I would like to ask you to subscribe to Cross-Border Talks. You can listen to us on Spotify or SoundCloud. You can watch us on YouTube. Hello, Vladimir. Hello, Veronika.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Hello, everybody.

Veronika, Czechs have so far selected two candidates that would advance to the second round of the presidential elections. But before you tell us more about Petr Pavel and Andrej Babis and their political backgrounds, tell us how these elections are really so important. Is it so that the president that will be elected will determine the face of Czech politics as such, and why? What is so special about the presidential system in Czechia?

Hello, everybody. Thank you for your invitation. I will try to explain something which is so messy even for us Czechs, so I hope I will be comprehensive enough.

First of all, we have to understand the context. We have a very specific context in the Czech elections for the president because the president has been voted directly for ten years. This was the change which was introduced ten years ago. This will be only the third such election in the system, which is predominantly parliamentary republics. What was done by the introduction of direct vote was that we introduced into the system of parliamentary democracy a directly voted president, which unfortunately changed the dynamics within the political system. The president has very symbolic and representative functions with some other small powers like naming the head of Central Bank and so on. But his real powers are actually very small and nobody in ten years did anything about the change of constitution, about the changing of these competences towards some more stronger. Everybody is basically happy about the parliamentary republic. Only this new element, the president chosen by citizens, was introduced without any basically real constitutional background.

On one hand, the Czech society has very specific expectations about the president. The president is still perceived by the prism of monarchy. We have this monarchy archetype tradition where a president should be somebody who unifies the society, who has a a huge, even charismatic authority. We can go back to Havel, but especially for Tomas Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, who, by the way, was inspired a lot from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. There are studies about how much he used the symbolic attributes of the monarchy for his own office.

On the other hand, you have the situation when you put the president into the direct vote – the head of state is not chosen by the parliament anymore. This way, tou politicise this person, the person who should unite the nation. When this politicization happens,suddenly there is a huge lack of consensus and a huge polarization. In the second round, you cannot choose from five candidates. You have always two possibilities and many citizens believe they are both bad.

In a nutshell, the president, whether it would be the candidate A or candidate B, will not be able to change too much in the Czech politics. The funny thing about the election, about the campaign is, for example, that they are very much complaining about the topics which are not in the competence of president, including, for example, socioeconomic situation in the Czech Republic. The society and the TV are creating a spectacle. Everybody understanding the political system, should know that this is not what the president is responsible for. The president cannot do anything.

The president can set some agenda, speak about some problems, visit some hospitals, go to some schools and use the authority of the office in order to set an agenda. But he cannot change the governmental policy. He cannot change the socioeconomic strategy. He cannot change even the foreign policy too much. Everything is in the competence of the government and then the parliament. It is the paradox: we think that actually this elections are close to some apocalyptic vote of evil against good. We are told that if this (or another) candidate is voted, it will be a catastrophe. But in reality, the president of the Czech Republic has no power to decide. Anything very substantial is done by the government.

On the other hand, again, a race is going on. Both candidates are at the moment in the situation they have to reflect the governmental policies, they have to reflect the context. They have to reflect the fact that there is a lot of discontent about the way the country is doing. There are more and more people feeling the pressure of the very bad socioeconomic situation. So this is in a nutshell what we have as a context and what is going on about the presidential elections on the general level.

Vladimir Mitev: We had a number of candidates, at least three more important ones and possibly others. What happened during the presidential campaign? And what were these candidates standing for?

We are already after the first round. So first round and that is two candidates – before that we had nine.There were three candidates which were seen as having the biggest chance. These are: general Peter Pavel, the former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, and the rector of Mendel University in Brno, Danuse Nerudova. In the first round, the general came first. Then, Babis and Nerudova was the third.

Then we had a group of candidates which were not very important. Everybody knows that they will probably not have huge support. There were many more candidates because of their own other political interests. Very often you have these candidates who are aiming not to presidency in reality, but who had other political agenda. They were using the campaing to build their picture.

We had one only one left-leaning candidate – the boss of Confederation of Trade Unions, Czech Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions, the biggest trade union confederation in the country. On the other side, there was one candidate representing SPD, the main rightist populist party in the Czech Republic, much more populist than ANO of Andrej Babis. So this was the landscape.

As you could see, the majority of candidates were right-wing, conservative or right leaning, with one exception of the trade unionist Josif Stredula. But even in his case, we could analyze how much he is really anti-establishment or ‘alternative’.

As expected, Babis and General Petr Pavel won the first round. All their competition is portrayed, as I told you, in these colours of apocalypse – Babis is called evil and you have to vote against the evil. It’s very sad to see that after 33 years of democracy, Czechs doesn’t understand what is democracy and what is politics about – because they really think that they are voting against some kind of evil. In fact, both these candidates are actually coming from very same background.

Babis is his own sponsor. He is billionaire, he has money. He went to politics in 2012 on the agenda based on fight against corruption. He was able to catch the part of electorate, which is socially weaker. Meanwhile, Petr Pavel is much closer to today’s coalition, towards the neoliberals, towards business, the TOP09 political party. But neither of them is any alternative. Doesn’t matter who you vote for from the perspective of some kind of social change or transformation or whatever. It’s just, again, theatre which they are playing for the public in order to look that there are alternatives, but they are not alternatives. Both have very same background, both have an oligarchy-based background, because money is what matters in Czech politics. The money behind.

I think we could give some more time to Joseph Stredula. As you said, he was the only more progressive candidate. For a long time, Czech Republic was the only post-communist state which actually had a living Communist Party present at the political scene. However, this belongs to the past – the party has been in decline for years. This time, the left candidate did not make it to the end of the presidential race – he asked his voters at one moment to transfer his votes to Nerudova, a right-wing candidate. It is very surprising that such things happen in a context that could theoretically promote some social change or left wing alternative, as the Czechs are suffering from rising unemployment, from the rising prices, from all kinds of livelihood crisis symptoms. Yet the progressive or left wing alternative cannot really make its existence on the political scene. Could you tell us more why it is so?

First of all, I should explain that if you look on the election result in the first round, you can see that actually a social polarization is there: Babis is supported by people who are living in villages, in small towns, who are not metropolitan Czechs, who have much more small incomes, who are basically pensioners. The minimally bigger support for the general came from these who are living in the metropolitan Prague or big cities. There is clear polarization , there is a clearly social cleavage, which has already been in Czech politics for many years, since the global financial crisis and earlier, as it was created by the wrongdoings of the transformation.

The problem is that Babis was able to create the electorate, which is composed of people who voted left – not necessarily Communist Party, but Social-Democratic Party for sure. He never says ‘I am a right-wing politician’ and he never says that his ANO party is right-wing. He says ‘I am a catch-all party, I don’t play for right or left, I like people. I want to help people’ . If you go to see his films and how he makes money, it really kind of sounds very funny.

Stredula was really the only one left-leaning candidate. He was the candidate with support of the Social Democratic Party, which is a non-parliamentary party. He didn’t have the support of communists anymore. But his campaign was based on those social problems which are really, really not only serious, but they are probably getting even deeper recently, because the current government doesn’t care. They are making political decisions harming the economy and then they claim that we cannot do anything because we have a neoliberal framework and the state cannot enter into the market. So this is really one of the huge problems which we have.

He was trying to be a candidate based on his trade union experience. It is necessary to say you can be critical of him. There is a lot of criticism going to Stredula but he was the trade union boss who led a very succesful social campaign, called The end of cheap labor. And as you know, cheap labor is a huge problem in all the regions. The trade unions under his leadership were able to at least set this agenda. Paradoxically, Babis government was the government which was able to do something about the cheap labor. We don’t need to like Babis, we can criticize him for many things, but the Babis government was the one which was raising the minimum salaries. Both governments, when he was finance minister, had the social-democrats as the strongest party. His minority government continued this policy.

Babis is taking some kind of part of the left-wing electorate and Stredula was trying to to represent the same electorate. Then he found out that his polls were around 3% and he suddenly decided to support another candidate, which was surprisingly Nerudova, which, honestly, was quite a shock for many people. I know many of my friends who are leftist and who wanted to vote for Stredula… and suddenly he recommended this lady. They were really very shocked. And I don’t think that this recommendation actually worked. I don’t think that many people followed this recommendation.

Why? I would say that it was very simple calculation, considering her opinions on things like pensions, considering also the scandal which was behind her, behind her work as a university rector. There was a huge scandal about selling off the scientific titles during her time in as the rector of the of the university.

All this has shown how weak is the Czech left. The leftist voters go somewhere else. They didn’t disappear, but they don’t vote for the leftist parties and, frankly, nobody knows what to do about it. At the moment it’s very this big question and unfortunately it is true that the hegemon on the left is… Babis. Together with another populist leader named Hokamura, who is taking the small part of protest voters from the Communist Party. Hokamura’s party is an even more populist rightist populist party, much more radical in the rhetoric, of course, than Babis is.

Culd I just ask a quick question because you said clearly who was voting for the general and who preferred Babis, but I still don’t know what is the general’s political program apart from being a formerly successful member of the Army. What is he saying to people? What are his values? What does he promise to people?

This is the interesting. Basically, the backbone of his program, if we look at the campaign, is ‘calm and order’. He is promising that, as he has experience in the military, he will provide society with calm and order. This is something which I must say is quite bitter if you think about it, because the very same note, and even the same words were, unfortunately, typical for the Czechoslovak normalization in the seventies after the occupation of the Soviet army. First, the society was in turmoil, and then a new servant of the occupants came to power – and this period was called normalization of the society. Many people lost their jobs. This is happening, by the way, in the Czech Republic now: when you have different opinions, you can lose the job. These days at the Academy of Sciences, for example, there are already several examples of it.

Given this context, it is something really scary to hear: what kind of calm and order he will offer considering that he has only one kind of experience? He’s not a politician. He has never been in civilian politics. He was in military politics. He was in the NATO, he was the Army general. This is the highest rank in the Czech Army. He was on some missions abroad, in Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan or Iraq. I don’t actually know what he is offering besides these things.

As I told you, within the campaign, they spoke about Russia, about peace, about support of Ukraine, about, high prices of energy. But in neither of these things he can change anything. The president is not responsible for these. One responsibility of the president, which is important, is that he should be moderator of a political crisis. And here I am worried again. If you don’t have political experience in this field, see Slovakia – and Czechs and Slovaks, we always see each other and observe our politics. We know about what’s going on in Slovakia. We see what is happening with the governmental crisis in Slovakia and how the president Caputova, who is not having any political experience, is not able to manage the political crisis. So this is the issue which I am afraid of.

We need somebody who is representative, who is respecting the competences on one hand, but still it is somebody who should know how to manage power. This is important, because there is power in the presidential post. He has some kind of symbolic power. He has the power to moderate. It’s not even close to executive powers, but even for these modest powers, this experience is important. And general Pavel is offering military experience and he’s proposing calm and order.

I think you have partially, partially responded to the next question. But still, I think it needs to be asked. What is the connection between the presidential race, between what the candidates said and between the real grievances of the Czech people? You said that some of the most defavorised members of the Czech society are voting Andrej Babis. But did other social questions that are now bothering Czech society have any representation during this campaign? Did anybody suggest any solutions to such problems as the fall of incomes or the prospect of rising taxes or the energy crisis or inflation or anything that now makes living in Czech Republic more and more expensive? Did the candidates suggest solution and in your opinion were these solutions plausible?

Well, as I told you, the president cannot do much about these things because this is the sphere of government…

I know. But this is the problem of many Eastern European countries that presidential campaigns are changed into a debates over what is going on in the country. At least this is the Polish experience: the presidential candidates always promise things that they can do. Was this also the case in Czechia?

Definitely! I would like to add something to what I said in the beginning with the tensions created by the introduction of direct vote and by the political system, which is parliamentary republics. In both direct elections of the president we had, the campaign was always about the current socioeconomic situation, while we were voting for somebody to rule for five years, somebody who should have some kind of a longer term program, some ideas. Usually all race is actually based on the fact that you are politicizing the current issues and putting them on the idea of president who should be the ‘unifying actor’. But he cannot, because of this what is going on.

This race now is predominantly about voting for or against the governmental policies. General Pavel is clearly the candidate of the today’s political coalition, neoliberal coalition, which returned to power after Babis. Babis is, of course, clearly on the other side as the political opposition, but a political opposition within the same system. Not an alternative.

Babis is not somebody who would offer any social and political transformation. But within the system, he is in the opposition. What we have is a key conflict between those who disagree with the governmental policies and who are already losing ground and between those who are who are in favor of them and who still haven’t felt the impacts of the socio-economic crisis. Or they are so well off that they don’t care or they are so much focused on the symbolic sphere, on the way to feel good that I vote for values. The general is seen as a candidate of the right side of the history of our Western leaning, and Babis is seen as an evil from the past who will bring us back to Russia, who will stop to help Ukraine… and who knows what else.

In fact, he’s very pragmatic. He is not like Orban or Kaczynski. Forget about this – he’s a totally different type of populist politician. He is very much mainstream in many things.

I would like to underline that two days before the race or three days before the race, Babis was invited for a private, 40-minute meeting with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, so that was a clear sign. Of course, the Elysee Palace said – “We don’t want to interfere in the election, blah, blah, blah.” But that was the clear sign that Babis is part of the European establishment and he is able to talk to the politicians like Macron – he speaks French very well, by the way.

So these social economic problems are there. But they are, of course, turned into something else. And the presidential election doesn’t offer any solution. This would happen in the parliamentary elections, which are not yet happening. It is very much the election about who supports and who is against the current government.

Okay. You already made some kind of outline on what we will follow. But still, can you make some kind of prognosis about what to expect from the second round of the elections?

Of course, this is always very open and we can see that the first round ended in the same way for both politicians. General Pavel got only zero 0,4% more than Babis. So they both are very close to each other and the final outcome will depend, I think, on several factors.

First factor is how they manage these two weeks. We have experienced of Milos Zeman. He was very much unloved, specifically in metropolitan Czechia as a candidate of the peripheries which the metropolis would prefer not to exist, because they don’t understand them anymore after globalization and all the development of last 30 years. Nevertheless, he was able to get the support specifically because of the campaign built on the opposition to his opponents. Campaign was usually very emotional. Now Babis is the evil, then Zeman was the evil.

Our liberals – I think it’s fact for all central Europe – our liberal elites are very much distrustful to the people. In this sense, they are undemocratic. They think they know better. So there always goes the campaign against voters of others, specifically of Zeman. They say: you are immoral if you vote for him. You are not civilized enough. You are barbarians from the periphery who shouldn’t vote, who couldn’t support somebody like this, and so on.

So the campaign will be important in how much Babis will be able to communicate and recommend himself, and how much the opposition side will start to do this. I mean, how the power side will be able to control this kind of attack towards the voters, which didn’t vote for them and towards the voters from the peripheries. They make people angry. You know, they make this big mistake that they started to attack normal citizens of the country who just have different opinions. They make them angry by this kind of disrespect, by this kind of dehumanization, which is coming from all media very often.

The campaign will be decisive. Of course, we know that nobody from the failed candidates supported Babis. Everyone is against him. Theoretically the logic says that the general will be the next Czech president. But as it’s still open, there are many factors.

The next factor is, by the way, how many people will come to vote. Now it was around 68%, but in the second round usually less people are going to come. So it can change the constellation, it can change the dynamics there. It can end the same way like Zeman who was able to overcome all these waves against him. Zeman was always alone against all the other candidates from the neoliberal or liberal bloc. So if Babis turns out able to communicate well himself as an alternative, if he is able to use these emotions which are moved against his voters, then he maybe has a chance. However, bookmakers are showing very, very clearly that the trust in Babis is not very strong.

I was very surprised Babis even decided to go for the presidential election because he is really the man of the executive. He is somebody who is very happy to be prime minister, who likes to have this kind of job and who seems himself a crisis manager. And I think he would be maybe pretty bored in the president’s castle. So if he is not voted as president, which is possible, I am pretty sure that he can be a Prime Minister in a few years if nothing happens, about health and other things. He could be again the Czech prime minister.

It is not very optimistic and not very energizing to hear that in the times of global crisis, which hit also the people of Czechia, two oligarchic candidates are fighting to become the ‘father of the nation’. It is sad to hear that the protest movement in Czech Republic, which is appearing here and there, that the people’s grievances didn’t yet give way to a rise of a real popular candidate or somebody who understand Czechs, somebody who can represent the Czechs and somebody who can advance progressive agenda into political life. So as Veronica said, the Czechs will vote in two weeks and most probably they will choose the candidate who promises law and order (while of course everything is possible). This is what the situation looks at the moment. Thank you very much, Veronica, for your answers, for your explanations. Thank you, Vladimir, for co-hosting this episode. And to everybody who listens to us, don’t forget to subscribe. You will not miss an episode. You will not miss any of the interesting guests we bring to the studio. So see you soon. And thank you very much.

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