If anyone assumed that the wave of populism and hoaxes faded away in Europe after last year’s elections in the Netherlands and France, he or she would have been terribly mistaken. Last week´s Czech presidential elections have shown how vulnerable citizens may be to fake news and unfounded fears of migration in a country where less than 1500 people apply for asylum. The majority of these foreigners come from ex-Soviet countries and not even a tenth is from war-struck Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Two percent away
Miloš Zeman had managed to retain his presidential seat last Saturday after a close win of 51,4% votes over liberal political novice Jiří Drahoš. The ever-high turnout of 66,6% indicates that the stakes have been high and the Czechs divided. For the second election round Miloš Zeman managed to mobilize his voters in those regions that are economically weaker, where unemployment is relatively higher, and education is relatively lower. The majority of the votes were cast in the President´s favor in small towns below 10.000 inhabitants, where half of the Czech population lives. Jiří Drahoš captured the votes in Prague and larger cities – ‘the Prague coffee-house society’ as called by his opponent.
Stuck in the past
The rural-urban chasm has never been wider in the Czech society and the last two weeks before the final vote, Mr. Zeman and his campaign team had taken advantage of it. The President decided to ride the wave of populist, anti-migrant and slightly anti-Muslim fears embedded in Czechs. He managed to picture Mr Drahoš as an “immigrant welcomer” who threatens the security and sovereignty of the nation. For many of his supporters, Zeman is the only political figure daring to speak his mind and defend their vision of national interests abroad. A novelty for the Czech elections was the spread of fake news about Mr. Drahoš among the elderly via email. And not only the migration card, but also a few other topics played greatly in the President´s favor. Whereas topics such as Industry 4.0, climate change, shared economy or impacts of globalization should have been the discussed points in political debates of the 21st century, the nation got stuck in deliberations about a smoking ban in restaurants – a long enacted issue.
Bad news – not only for the Western allies
The results of the elections became a thorn in the eye for Western European partners as the Czech Republic is just a step away from joining the Polish-Hungarian club of “EU bullies”, instead of becoming a reliable partner in Central Eastern Europe. What is more, in his campaign, Mr. Zeman never opposed the Brexit-style referendum in the Czech Republic, supported mainly by Tomio Okamura´s anti-Muslim far right party SPD. It seems that values brought by former presidents Masaryk and Havel are now buried deep under the Prague castle and lost in rural disillusion. Let´s hope that the damage on national beliefs and the atmosphere of fear can still be defeated after the second presidential term.
Author: Petra Adamková