A Country in Search of Itself

Czech Republic’s Elections and the Need for a New Narrative

In late 2017 and early 2018, the hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Czechoslovak state, Czech citizens were called to elections twice: to renew the country’s parliament and appoint their president. What came out of the ballots was not only an unprecedented blow to post-1989 establishment parties but, more generally and significantly, the image of an undecided country, divided between its prosperous capital and the surrounding regions, between future challenges in Europe and nostalgia for a long-gone past, between commitment to Western values and sirens’ chants from the East.

The victory in the legislative elections of ANO party (acronym for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”), led by media tycoon and billionaire entrepreneur Andrej Babiš, appeared to many external observers as yet another triumph of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant populism in Central Europe. Not so for Vít Dostál, research director at Prague-based AMO (Association for International Affairs): “Although ANO’s victory came largely at the expenses of traditional parties, Babiš is not an anti-establishment actor — Dostál explains — and his narrative was more focused on fixing internal problems than on leading the country to uncharted territory. In many policy areas, Babiš will not be Central Europe’s game changer”. What appears as a real threat to the Czech Republic’s place in Europe is the surge of SPD, the far-right anti-EU party led by Tomio Okamura. “SPD won a large share of its votes from former supporters of the Communist party, whose switching to Okamura’s positions is a protest for low wages, economic uncertainty and fear for globalization, particularly strong outside Prague” Dostál says.

The electoral victory of media tycoon and billionaire entrepreneur Andrej Babiš appeared to many as yet another triumph of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant populism in Central Europe

The divide between Prague and the rest of the country became particularly salient in the presidential election, where for the second time in Czech history voters could directly elect the president of the republic. Incumbent president Miloš Zeman, notwithstanding accusations of backing by Russia and concerns about his physical health, managed to win with a thin margin (51% to 49%) against his opponent Jiří Drahoš, a former academician at his first political experience. While Zeman’s rhetoric managed to win the hearts of voters in rural areas, Drahoš enjoyed wide support in larger cities, but was not able to coagulate liberal and pro-EU positions into a coherent discourse that could go beyond the need for an anti-Zeman candidate. “Some have interpreted this election as the most important after the end of the Communist era. I disagree” says Mats Braun, head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague. “We need to consider that incumbent presidents usually start from an advantaged position. From this viewpoint, Zeman’s performance proved quite weak, and his difficulty against an unexperienced opponent shows his growing unpopularity”.

The latest elections have been seen by many as the most important after the end of the Communist era, and they showed the increasing salience of the divide between Prague and the rest of the country

Babiš, whom international observers often parallel to former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for his plead to govern with a managerial approach and his judicial misadventures (Babiš is under investigation from OLAF — the EU anti-fraud office — for misappropriation of funds), enjoyed the support of Zeman during the electoral campaign, but their alliance now seems less solid. “While Zeman won’t change his stance, Babiš has already started to normalize the positions he put forward during the electoral campaign, especially toward the EU” Braun explains. With a vocal critic of the EU like Zeman behind him, “Babiš will have to find a way to better present himself to the EU institutions and other member states, otherwise he will risk being sidelined in the European Council — something Czech Republic is trying to avoid”. The debate around the Czech Republic’s role in the EU, however, was largely reduced to criticism of the migrants’ relocation scheme launched by the European Commission in 2015, particularly opposed by “Visegrád Group” countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland). All main parties and presidential candidates “shared this view — says Dostál — leading to a debate on EU membership that lacked depth, serious analysis and vision for the future”.

This lack of vision is precisely what sets Czech Republic aside in comparison to other Central European countries. “Czech Euroscepticism is different from that of Poland and Hungary — Dostál explains — in that Warsaw and Budapest have a vision for themselves in Europe — although one not likely to be accepted by Western member states and Brussels — and voice it, while Czech Republic simply doesn’t want to engage in the debate. This traces back to our 20th century experiences, when Czechs were repeatedly wronged by external forces and their voice, although speaking the truth, was unheeded. We think we have a moral argument, but it would be worthless to put it forward because, today as in the past, we would not be listened to”. While it can be difficult to assess the impact of history on contemporary political processes, it nonetheless appears that Czech membership “was never a question of ideals”, says Braun. Except in the minds of progressive intellectuals as former president Václav Havel, the debate on Czech accession to the EU “had more to do with international trade, welfare improvement, economic growth”. Czech economy is indeed deeply oriented toward international trade, with a positive and increasing trade balance sustained by exports to other EU countries. The benefits of EU membership, however, still seem too small, especially when Czech wages are compared to those of neighboring Germany, Czech Republic’s first commercial partner. When we add to the equation debates on double standards on the quality of food sold in different member states — with Central and Eastern European countries being destined lower-quality goods — and the fear of terrorism associated with migration and the redistribution plan, Czech Euroscepticism finds more fuel.

Except in the minds of progressive intellectuals such as former president Václav Havel, the debate on Czech Republic’s position and role in the European Union was never a question of ideals

Eurosceptic narratives would not be so pervasive, were they confronted by alternative discourses. The problem is they aren’t. “The debate on the EU has been dominated for ten years by Václav Klaus (Czech Republic’s first prime minister and then President from 2003 to 2012), whose critical stance toward Czech membership had no real opponent” Dostál says. Media representation of EU issues slowly converged on the mainstream critical narrative, sometimes out of naïve mistakes: “Take the migration issue — Braun exemplifies — where a significant number of private and public media outlets criticized the relocation plan out of fear that its perceived lack of legitimacy would fuel far-right movements. Their strategy backlashed, and extremists gained support precisely out of this widespread Eurosceptic narrative. With the same logic, other problems originating in the rest of the EU were magnified and dramatized by Czech media”. The apparent unanimity of Czech media environment on EU issues makes it also difficult to assess the impact of Babiš’ media ownership on the political debate: “There surely is a problem of conflict of interest — Braun says — but I would not be able to say to what extent”.

With a public debate unilaterally Eurosceptical but lacking alternative visions, a president openly winking at China and Russia and a future government whose stance will depend on the delicate balance within a still-to-form parliamentary coalition, Czech Republic’s unclarity about its future come as little surprise. Proposing a different narrative takes a good deal of political courage and it is not always rewarding, as the poor electoral performance of pro-EU TOP09 party (ending with 5.3% of votes) proved. “To improve the quality of the debate on EU and foreign policy issues we need a strong figure” Dostál says. Drahoš tried, but was not thoroughly convincing, especially when he borrowed some of Zeman’s populist rhetoric to win votes from the audience of the last TV-aired presidential debate. “The truth is, right now there are no political figures strong enough to change the tune and offer a constructive image of the Czech Republic in Europe — Braun admits — We have no Czech Macron”.

Proposing a different narrative for the future of the country takes a good deal of political courage and commitment to long-term social transformation

Hope, as often, lies in the hands of younger generations. “We need to train our children to critical thinking since primary school, as it happens in other countries — explains Braun, who moved from Sweden to Prague more than a decade ago and has his children in Czech schools — through early familiarization to news and political debate. In Sweden, for example, kids are taught how to approach information, how to filter, criticize and balance it. They need to learn how to articulate issues beyond a black-and-white division”. While this is a long-term approach, depending on the willingness to reform the education and university system, local initiatives and grassroot movements timidly sprouting in the country can become proactive voices, hopefully able to win the politically-disaffected Czech youth back to participation. “Maybe we won’t have immediate results, but this is the antidote to a polarized society” Braun concludes. What needs to be reaffirmed is that “we cannot keep hiding behind our powerlessness”, as claims one of the characters of “The After Party”, a new play by Dutch playwright Pieter De Buysser on Havel’s legacy and the meaning of being European today; because, at the end of the day, “in a free country we have to make decisions by ourselves”.

Fabio Parola, Roundtable editor-in-chief, Go Think Initiative