Who won last night's debate? Czech presidential candidates square off ahead of election

The three frontrunners engaged in tense debate yesterday evening, ahead of polls opening across the country today.

Thomas Smith

Written by Thomas Smith Published on 13.01.2023 11:52:00 (updated on 13.01.2023) Reading time: 3 minutes

The three presidential election frontrunners took part in the final televised debate Thursday evening before the first round of voting for the election, which gets underway today.

This was the first debate in which the three favorites all attended, with former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš notably absent during previous televised debates.

A three-way attack

Babiš, leader of the opposition ANO party, was grilled for his shortcomings during his time as prime minister (between 2017 and 2021). One of the issues that Petr Pavel and Danuše Nerudová blamed him for was mismanaging the Covid-19 epidemic. “Management and communication with the public was chaotic,” said Pavel of Babiš’s leadership as reported in ČTK. Babiš defended himself by saying that he followed all possible recommendations of health experts. 

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Billionaire Babiš, who earlier this week was acquitted in a drawn-out subsidy-fraud case, also faced questions regarding tax evasion in France. “I am not aware of any investigation, I haven’t been contacted,” said Babiš in response. He also refused to comment on the fact that his own party vice chairman stated earlier this week that he would not vote for Babiš.

Pavel also had to defend himself from his opponents’ comments and claims. His former membership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia has been weaponized by those opposed to him. According to him, however, his membership at the time was a necessary evil, and the only way in which one could advance up the military ranks. Pavel also added: “I never covered [this] up, I was open about it.”

Babiš also accused Pavel of “not doing anything” for the people of Czechia in recent years. Babiš cited his previous political experiences as qualifying his eligibility for the role of president. Pavel retorted by criticizing Babiš’s “unhealthy” populism and murky financial history. Nerudová encouraged the pair to set aside personal differences and discuss the future of the country.

Nerudová, running to become the Czech Republic’s first-ever female president, was also on the defensive. She had served as the rector of Mendel University from 2018 and 2022, and is being accused of being aware of degrees being illegally expedited for financial compensation. She defended herself by saying that she had zero knowledge of these practices whilst being in charge at Mendel.

According to political scientist Ladislav Mrklas speaking to ČTK, Nerudová's performance was composed and stronger than her previous debates. Pavel maintained his impressive oratorical display, whereas Babiš showed a "lack of humility" and continued his polarizing stance.

But who will win?

Czechs today head to the polls – opening at 2 p.m. today and closing at 10 p.m. – for the first day of the presidential election’s first round. They will choose the country’s first president for 10 years, who will replace incumbent (and divisive) Miloš Zeman. The president of Czechia holds a five-year term, and can be elected for a maximum of two terms.

It is almost definite that the presidential election will go to a second round, which will take place on Jan. 27 and 28. This will feature a head-to-head face-off of the two candidates with the highest vote share from the first round.

Opinion polls have been remarkably close in recent weeks, and a winner is too tough to call. Aggregating all opinion polls of the past three months shows Petr Pavel to be the most likely winner; one of the most recent opinion polls shows him claiming 27.5 percent of the vote (with Babiš on 26.5 and Nerudová on 22 percent). Surveys from December had, in various instances, put Babiš and Nerudová as the winners.

According to betting agencies, Pavel is the favorite to win, with odds of about 1.5 to 1. Babiš’s odds are 3.4 to 1, and those of Nerudová 5 to 1. 

With a report last week stating that about one-third of Czechs don’t know who to vote for, the country is eagerly anticipating who its next leader will be.

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