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Lessons Not Learned

The Czech Republic could have prevented another populist victory by taking a closer look at neighboring Slovakia’s recent history.

by Martin Ehl 29 January 2018

Czechs might not like to hear it, but these past months, they failed to take a leaf out of the democracy-building handbook of their poorer and smaller, former brother, Slovakia. The majority of Czech voters cast, for the second time, their ballots for incumbent President Milos Zeman. A pro-Russian and pro-Chinese dinosaur of the Czech political scene, Zeman now rides on the worst waves of populism sweeping contemporary Europe, which focus on the phantom hordes of Muslim immigrants waiting at the gates and combine such fears with clever policies aimed at dividing society, while trampling underfoot any and all democratic rivals.

 

The situation in the Czech Republic looks even worse after these elections, which have opened the door for the creation of a populist government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has the support of communists and right-wing nationalists. And Czechs – unlike their Slovak neighbors, which did it a few times in the past 20 years – were not able to mobilize themselves to secure a pro-Western and pro-European orientation. One of the potential explanations is that Czechs were too reliant on their dissident-turned-president, Vaclav Havel, as the guardian and savior of their democracy – instead of building up institutions informal and formal that could secure his vision for society even after his passing.

 

Across the border, all political forces in Slovakia united in 1998 against the increasingly authoritarian rule of then-Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. In 2014, non-politician Andrej Kiska won the presidential elections against the all-powerful, populist prime minister, Robert Fico. Last but not least, in the regional elections organized late in 2017, Slovaks were able to kick out neo-Nazi leader Marian Kotleba from the seat of regional governor of the Banska Bystrica region in central Slovakia.

 

The lessons, which the Slovaks offered and the Czechs did not heed, might be useful for the whole Central European region, which is increasingly undermining its pro-EU orientation through a growing skepticism toward the rule of law and toward the liberal order as such.

 

The first lesson is that even the most liberal and open-minded politicians will not do the work of civil society. Especially in 1998, Slovaks had to mobilize themselves at the grassroots level to tackle the growing authoritarian tendencies. And they have repeated the same feat on the local level in 2016 and 2017, when different individuals and NGOs crisscrossed the Banska Bystica region, a neo-Nazi bastion where many people have felt lost and forgotten by the government, and cut off from the prosperity increasingly experienced elsewhere.

 

But no such movement took off in the Czech Republic where there are also regions, especially in the former border areas of the so-called Sudetenland, next to the German border, which have fallen into oblivion since the fall of the communist regime. These regions were crucial not only in the recent presidential vote, where Zeman secured his victory thanks to a difference of only 152,000 votes, a very small margin given the approximately 5.5 million cast across the country. Voters there also made a difference in the parliamentary elections last October, when a party of right-wing populists and nationalists surprisingly became the fourth strongest grouping in parliament.

 

The second most important lesson the Czech Republic disregarded was the need to find and promote charismatic politicians from the ranks of existing pro-European parties, which struggle among themselves instead of attempting to unite for the sake of a higher principle. This was the key to success in Slovakia in 1998 against Meciar, and to a lesser extent against Fico in 2010, when his coalition did not survive for more than two years.

 

And the third lesson has to do with what I would call the conflict between a savior-based approach and institutional strength. The legacy of Havel is vanishing. In 2014, Kiska, the current Slovak president, offered a fresh face and decency as alternatives against brutish populism. But later on he was criticized for not fulfilling the hopes his voters had naturally put on his shoulders. Even an excellent politician could not quickly change a system where institutions have shallow roots. There was hope that presidential candidate Jiri Drahos, who lost to Zeman, could be such a Czech Kiska.

 

But now the expectations are mostly about the robustness and durability of the institutions making up the Czech system, including the judiciary, the Constitutional Court, and the public broadcaster, and how they can deal with the expected triumph of all these populist forces.

 

With no savior on the horizon, with Western liberalism in decline, and with Western European incomprehensive of the gravity of the situation in Central Europe, Czech democracy might, indeed, have an increasingly hard time surviving.

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