Czech presidential candidate Nerudova loses her mojo as election nears

Czech presidential candidate Nerudova loses her mojo as election nears
Danuse Nerudova has benefited from her image as a younger politician who is untainted by the communist past. / Danuse Nerudova
By Albin Sybera January 5, 2023

Czech presidential candidate Danuse Nerudova, who was sitting on top of the opinion polls last month, now appears to be trailing the two other favourites – retired army general Petr Pavel and opposition leader and billionaire populist Andrej Babis – as the campaign enters the final stretch.

The race between the three is still very close but the economist has now dropped to third place, according to the latest poll by the Median agency, ahead of the first round of voting on January 13. Both Nerudova and Pavel have been endorsed by the centre-right government as among its preferred candidates.

She is the only woman among the nine candidates and would be the country's first female president if elected, and she has therefore drawn comparisons with the liberal president of neighbouring Slovakia, Zuzana Caputova. The Czech presidency is a largely ceremonial post but the president has input into foreign policy and makes key appointments such as the central bank governor.

Last month the former Mendel University rector was hit by media reports of plagiarism at the university during her tenure. Nerudova has also been criticised for avoiding media questions on the plagiarism affair, which involved international students at the university.

Instead, Nerudova published what Czech Radio commentator and online outlet A2larm editor Apolena Rychlikova described as an “interview where she posed questions to herself”.

In the text placed on her website, Nerudova admitted that “some of the students completed their studies faster and with smaller effort than is common” and pointed out that this concerned only a few individuals from a total of 8,000 students and in only one of the 231 study programmes. Nerudova also disclosed an email from March 2021 in which she responded to reports of “translation plagiarism” by setting up a commission to “review doctoral study programmes in English”.

In November and December Nerudova appeared to benefit from her image as a younger, liberal pro-Western politician who is untainted by the communist past. Babis joined the Communist Party and, acccording to the files of the Slovak  National Memory Institute, collaborated with the secret police (an allegation he denies).  General Pavel, formerly the highest-ranking Nato official from the former Soviet bloc, was also a member of the party and has come under increased public scrutiny for his intelligence training while in the Czechoslovak communist army.  

Nerudova, 43, has dismissed her rivals’ pasts, and told the Czech public, which still  grapples with the country's communist past, that she intends to focus on “our future” if elected.

When she launched her campaign last May, she said that the country “cannot be managed like a company, nor like a military unit” in an obvious reference to her two main rivals. “Our country needs to be managed like a family”, she said.

Her rise in the opinion polls has, however, prompted media to ask more questions about her own background.    

Together with the plagiarism affair during her tenure at Mendel University, her  husband Robert’s work as an equity partner for the Havel & Partners law firm has raised eyebrows. Havel & Partners is one of the country's major legal firms on anti-trust  issues. Its clients include the majority state-owned utility CEZ, for which Havel & Partners  is bidding to do the legal work for the expansion of the Dukovany Nuclear Power Plant.

The nuclear tender is the largest investment project in Czechia’s history. It is underway with three offers submitted from Westinghouse, EDF, and KHNP.  

Transparency International’s lawyer Petr Leyer recently pointed out that Robert Neruda’s high-profile involvement in the legal business would be problematic if Nerudova became president because she would be in charge of appointing  judges. “After the Milos Zeman era this would not improve the image of the presidential office nor the general trust in justice” in Czechia, Leyer was quoted as saying by Seznam Zpravy.

The first round of presidential elections is scheduled for January 13-14, with the second-round run-off scheduled for two weeks later.    Up to a third of voters are still undecided for whom to vote.