What the Czech Presidential election will mean for the country and the Visegrad region as a whole
A tight difference of 150 thousand votes brought a victory to Miloš Zeman in the run-off presidential elections in the Czech Republic. Most of the well-educated, liberal, pro-EU residents of bigger cities have been flabbergasted by the fact that so many of their co-patriots were ready to vote for a man who is known as being a capricious (and very sick) oaf and who has been dragging the country economically- and mentally-closer to Russia and China.
Similarly, as many other democratic societies, Czechs became bitterly divided between the centre and periphery, between those who do not see modernity and globalisation as a threat and those who feel that the current political and economic system is somehow failing them.
Fear became the dominant factor in this presidential election in the Czech Republic. Fear of migrants, fear of Islamisation, and fear of the globalisation as represented by Brussels. The fact that Zeman was able to mobilise his voters by presenting himself as a true patriot who is protecting the country against all those perils is startling, considering the fact that the Czech Republic is experiencing economically the most prosperous times ever. Migrants, unless they get lost on the way to Germany, do not use the Czech territory even as a transit route, let alone the final destination, and the Muslim community is rather small and mostly very well-integrated.
Czechs, in times when far-right parties and nationalist parties were gaining strengths in many European countries, seemed for a long time to be immune to political agitation based on a strong nationalist sentiment. Not anymore.
However, we should not compare Zeman to Kaczyński or Orbán. He is not a conservative ideologist with the intention to limit women and gay rights or a historical revisionist with an ambition to restore the Czech greatness. But similar to most of the countries in Europe, many Czechs were ready to vote for parties (in the Parliamentary elections in 2017) and a representative (this weekend) who convinced them that their culture, lifestyle, and economic well-being has been under threat. In the Czech case, this threat became in minds of many embodied by the EU’s quota system for distributing migrants, which many Czechs feared would bring to the country people who refuse to adapt to the local culture and who spread Islamic radicalism and terrorism. As such, it was this alleged peril which largely contributed to the result of the Czech election.
What can we expect from Zeman in the next few years? Being sick and physically weak, his political style may become less pernicious. Or not. He has nothing to lose and being known as a man who enjoys taking revenge against those who opposed him, he may use his last time in the office to punish his old and new enemies and concomitantly to further destabilise existing political parties – as was the case of the Social Democrats in the past five years.
This should worry especially Mr. Babiš who may soon find out that a seasoned politician like Zeman might not be too happy about his critical comments before the run-off concerning his co-workers in the presidential office and did not welcome Babiš’ advice that the president should tame his incendiary style.
Further, the ailing Zeman may become more and more subservient to his inner-circle in which pro-Russian acolytes play the main role. How much damage they will cause depends on the willingness and the ability of the government and the parliament not to allow the Czech Republic to change its geopolitical stance.
Last but not least, the Czech political culture will continue to suffer as Zeman is someone who takes delight in sexist, racist and Islamophobic comments and who enjoys attacking journalists (Zeman prefers verbal attacks, but members of his team resorted to physical violence only a few hours after the electoral results were announced). All of which will be further damaging to the quality of political discourse in the Czech Republic.
The re-election of Zeman will be a serious test for the Czech institutions. In the time when the possibility of a government composed of or supported by anti-systemic parties is looming on the horizon, with a president who is unpredictable and strongly under the influence of his pro-Russian advisors, institutions like the Senate, the Supreme court and public media will be more important than ever. The next few years may decide if the Czech Republic will join the path of Poland and Hungary, or if its democratic system will succumb to some kind of illiberalism.
Irena Kalhousova is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.