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Uncharted Waters with Populists Ahead

The stakes are extremely high ahead of the Czech elections, which could be a potential game changer for the entire region. 

by Martin Ehl 19 October 2017

For outsiders, it might be difficult to understand how the Czech parliamentary elections, which will take place 20-21 October, can be judged unpredictable. After all, there is no doubt about the winner: businessman, former finance minister, and populist Andrej Babis and his party ANO (which means “yes” in Czech). And neither Babis nor his voters seem overly concerned that he was recently investigated by the police and charged with the misuse of EU funds. The volatile situation, however, stems from the unusually high number of small parties that may or may not cross the five percent threshold needed to get into the legislature – new ones as well as formerly grand, traditional parties that are now scuffling to stay relevant.


What ties Babis with some of those smaller entities is also a recurrent theme elsewhere in European politics, including the polls recently held in Germany and Austria: the rise of populist and nationalist parties.


Although officially affiliated with the EU’s liberals, Babis and his ANO belong more to the populist camp due to their impulsiveness, lack of political correctness, and concentrated leadership of the party in one individual. They fight against “traditional politicians and parties” with promises to “work hard” – whatever that means.


What worries one most when looking around this region, at the success of the extremist AfD in Germany and FPO in Austria, is the potential result of the party of the half-Japanese, half-Czech politician Tomio Okamura. His Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD), is not the dark, but the “brown” horse of these elections, and could get easily get more than 10 percent of the vote. I choose “brown” to describe the SPD because of its nationalist and populist tendencies, which in Central Europe are often associated with the color of the infamous Nazi party uniforms from the Hitler era.


In Germany, the anti-immigrant AfD was most successful in the regions where the fewest refugees arrived. This is also the case of the Czech Republic, where only a few dozens of asylum seekers are waiting for their cases to be decided. But the lower the real knowledge about the migrants, the greater the fear of this unknown danger.


Okamura skillfully campaigns on the topic of direct democracy (meaning that he favors referenda as a means of letting people have their say on practically anything), “Czexit” from the EU, hatred of immigrants, and a general rejection of the liberal order and liberal values. He has been working hard in the country’s hinterland, touring small cities and villages, and using Facebook to his advantage to create a closed community of aficionados who do not consume mainstream media but only circulate their own “news” plus a couple of pro-Russian, “alternative” sources.


Of course, also competing for votes are the unreformed communists, right-wing conservatives, liberals, greens, pirates (yes, another dark horse, the Pirate Party could take much of the youth vote), and many other parties. But the main question is whether any democratic party (or parties) will opt for a coalition with Babis, and be his partner and “minder” at the same time. There are even speculations about a united anti-Babis front or coalition without ANO.


Any similar solution to a fragmented parliament seems unthinkable for now since the mainstream parties say cooperation with the communists and SPD isn’t an option (even if we hear that Babis wouldn’t consider that an obstacle to creating a government with them).


The strength of the nationalistic and populist vote will be a key then to the ultimate outcome. I am afraid that Okamura will be able – as was the case with the AfD in Germany – to bring to the polls many people who wouldn’t otherwise vote. This is one of the reasons why the result is so unpredictable. The inspiration Okamura takes from Germany is clear – as it is for the other parties.


Only the liberal, rightist, and slowly declining TOP 09 party plays an openly pro-EU card in the campaign. One can find Eurosceptic tones in any other programs, although nobody besides Okamura proposes “Czexit” so openly. This can be traced back to the influential role of the Eurosceptic voice of former President and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus in the Czech public discourse about Europe – and the lack of a powerful counterweight that would have been willing to challenge him. Plus, Czechs have a natural tendency to blame others for anything, in part a result of being the victims of the great power politics over the past century. According to a recent poll in the four Visegrad countries, Czechs are the most Eurosceptic nation in comparison to Poles, Hungarians, and Slovaks. Only 56 percent of Czechs support EU membership, while the figure is 88 percent in Poland (whose government is called Eurosceptic more frequently than the Czech one).


Czechs, therefore, listen with suspicion to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for tightening the EU core around the Eurozone, a club they are not members of. They watch with great interest as the European Commission pressures Poland and Hungary over their non-democratic moves. And it seems that the harder the EU leans on rebellious countries, and imposes its core tenets, the more people will join the Eurosceptic camp, arguing that such an approach will also hurt Czech sovereignty. No rational arguments, including the close connection of the Czech economy and the Eurozone, work. Politics is mainly about emotions, and these are still running high over the 2015 German decision to welcome the waves of migrants, which was not understandable even for old pro-German and pro-EU experts from the Czech Republic.


If experts are confused, then one cannot blame average voters for falling prey to active pro-Russian propaganda, the traditional provincialism of Czech politics, and the revival of nationalism. And this is hardly the end: presidential elections are coming up in January and could end with the victory of the pro-Russian, populist incumbent Milos Zeman – if his health and voters allow it.


The combined results of both elections could redefine Czech politics, as we know them – for better or worse. It looks like the stakes in Czech elections have not been higher since the first free elections in 1990, held after the fall of communism.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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