1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Czech presidential race wide open after court ruling

January 11, 2023

Former Prime Minister Andrej Babis has been acquitted of fraud, boosting his prospects in this weekend's presidential election which pits him against a former general and a former university rector.

Former Czech PM Andrej Babis smiles broadly as he gives a briefing on his acquittal on charges of subsidy fraud, Sokolovna Pruhonice, Czech Republic, January 9, 2023
'INNOCENT!' tweeted a jubilant Andrej Babis after his acquittal on Monday at the end of a six-year caseImage: Katerina Sulova/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

Voters in the Czech Republic go to the polls Friday and Saturday to elect the country's next president.

The question on many people's minds in the run-up to the first round of the election is whether former 68-year-old former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, an oligarch and ally of far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, will be voted in.

On Monday, just a few days before polls open, the chairman of the opposition Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party was acquitted of the charge of being an accomplice in an EU subsidy fraud, a ruling that could improve his chances of being elected head of state.

One of the first people to congratulate him on his acquittal was Hungary's Orban, who advised his friend to keep on fighting.

View of Prague Castle and the Mala Strana from the Charles Bridge in snowy weather
Czechs will go to the polls on Friday and Saturday to elect their next presidentImage: Jakub Palata/DW

Charged with EU subsidy fraud

The ruling marks the end of a six-year case related to a farm known as the Stork's Nest, which was purchased by the Babis-owned holding Agrofert in 2006 and developed into a luxury leisure resort. Two years later, the resort was taken out of the holding, and Babis transferred the shares to his children and other relatives.

This meant that, on paper, the Stork's Nest was a small company and received EU subsidies to the tune of about €2 million ($2.1 million) from a fund for small and medium-sized businesses. A few years later, the company became part of the Agrofert group once again.

Acquitted in a court of law

The state attorney had accused Babis of subsidy fraud and sought a three-year suspended sentence and a fine of €410,000. But the Prague Municipal Court concluded that the police and the state attorney could not prove that the billionaire had committed a crime and acquitted him.

The case is not yet entirely closed, however, as the state attorney can still appeal. Nevertheless, the unexpected acquittal has changed things for many in the Czech Republic.

Can Babis win the election?

"The acquittal gives Andrej Babis and his team the opportunity to launch a broad-based campaign and to try and tip the balance of power, which until now did not look good for the former prime minister, in his favor," said Martin Buchtik, director of the Prague-based STEM Institute for Empirical Research, adding that it is now almost certain that Babis will reach the second round of the election.

Sociologist Martin Buchtik, director of the STEM Institute for Empirical Research, pointing at statistics on a screen
Buchtik predicts Babis will make it to the second round, but not be elected presidentImage: Barbora Mráčková/STEM

"Once there, he can attack his opponent from the position of a man who has been acquitted in a court of law," said Buchtik, who feels that the race is now much wider open than it was a few days ago.

Three candidates neck-and-neck in round one

On Sunday, STEM published the results of a new poll that indicated that Babis would get 27.9%, General Petr Pavel 26.7% and Danuse Nerudova 24.4% of the votes in the first round. But both the STEM poll and others published in recent days suggest Babis would lose the second round on January 27–28 by about 10-20 percentage points.

"All available data suggests that it is highly improbable he will win the second round. Something extraordinary would have to happen for a candidate who lags so far behind his potential opponent in the second round to ultimately win the election," Buchtik said.

A divided electorate

For a large proportion of Czech voters, Babis is simply unelectable. In addition to his political and economic power, he controls large swaths of the Czech media, which many consider a conflict of interest. He has also come in for criticism for his populist and pro-Hungary policies.

Campaign poster for General Petr Pavel, Karvina, Czech Republic, November 9, 2022
One of Pavel's slogans is 'Let's bring back peace and order to the Czech Republic'Image: Drahoslav Ramik/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

On the other hand, with his pledge to increase pensions, Babis has won over many voters — especially pensioners, who make up about 25% of the electorate. Although this was enough to make ANO the strongest political party in the Czech Republic, it likely won't be enough to get him the 50% of votes needed in the second round to be elected president.

Has Macron boosted Babis?

Babis knows this, which is why he visited French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday, the day after his acquittal. ANO and Macron's Renaissance party are both part of the Renew Europe political group in the European Parliament.

"The meeting with Emmanuel Macron shows the public that he still has political standing," said political analyst Jana Kubacek, of the Czech News Agency. The office of the French president emphasized that the meeting with Babis was not a declaration of support for his campaign.

A general in times of war

In matters of prestige, however, Babis has a strong competitor in the election: General Pavel, 61, a former chairman of the NATO Military Committee and former chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces, looks back on a glittering 30-year career in the military. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor for evacuating a French unit of UN troops from a base that was surrounded by warring enemy troops in 1993 during hostilities between Croatia and Serbia in the Yugoslav Wars.

Nerudova smiles during a debate of presidential candidates on Czech TV, Prague
Economics professor Danuse Nerudova is currently running in third place in opinion pollsImage: Michaela Rihova/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

His military experience features largely in his electoral slogan: "leading with experience and calm in difficult times." However, his membership in the Communist Party before the collapse of communism in 1989 and the fact that he went through military intelligence training in the late 1980s could prove a stumbling block.

Former rector popular with young voters

Former university rector Danuse Nerudova also has a chance. Polls suggest young voters in particular intend to vote for the 44-year-old economist, who would be the country's first woman president if elected. "The key to all change is the reform of the education system in the Czech Republic," Nerudova recently told Czech Radio.

Many voters who don't want Babis will choose either Nerudova or Pavel, both of whom are backed by the current coalition government. "As soon as one pulls ahead, the other will lose ground," Buchtik said.

Though Czech presidents wield much less executive power than Czech prime ministers, they still have a considerable influence on domestic and foreign policy and on the atmosphere in the country.

Over the past 20 years, the Czech Republic has had two euroskeptic presidents in Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman. Many experts feel that this is one reason why the Czech Republic is one of the most euroskeptic countries in the EU.

So, while Pavel and Nerudova both have a clear pro-EU stance, Babis regularly tries to harness the widespread euroskepticism for his own ends and likes to rail against the bloc. But this does not mean he is averse to getting financial support from Brussels: His Agrofert group is one of the biggest recipients of EU subsidies in the Czech Republic.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with blond hair, wearing a white shirt and a blue and black checked jacket
Lubos Palata Correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, based in Prague