Czechia in 2016: a new name, old fears and many open questions

Photo: Public Domain

2016 has been an eventful year both on the domestic and international front. Senate and regional elections in the Czech Republic indicate that traditional parties may be in a crisis, trust in EU institutions has sunk even lower following the Brexit vote and special security measures are in place around the country following the terrorist attack in Berlin. In this half-hour debate on Radio Prague I look back at the past year – and the challenges that lie ahead - with political scientist Jiří Pehe and the head of the STEM polling agency Jan Hartl.

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Katarína Brezovská
Post-truth was voted expression of the year in English speaking countries –to what extend does this disturbing phenomenon concern the Czech Republic?

Post-truth era

JP: “Well, in my opinion, it concerns the Czech Republic about the same as the rest of the Western world, because this is a phenomenon that spreads via the social media and our own security agencies warn that Czech cyberspace has been a target of various disinformation campaigns, including trolls financed by Russia. So it is here, it is present and we have to live with it.”

Nowadays it seems that politicians can get away with any kind of statement, be it true or false, as long as it is what people want to hear. Why do people no longer care about the truth?

JP: “That is why I started talking about the social media, because when we refer to the “post-factual world” we usually talk about politicians and political campaigns, but politicians are only using what is available out there in cyberspace, in the social media, they really do not have to bother so much about telling the truth, because it cannot be easily verified and it can be done in all kinds of ways –when you say something that is not entirely truthful, but the basis of the statement is true, then it can be worked on at all kinds of levels in the modern media. So I think it is a very complex problem.”

Where can this lead, Mr. Hartl? What are the dangers?

JH: “Well, I wonder. And I would not attribute it only to the social media, social networks, the Internet and so on. I think we are living in an extremely complex world, there is much confusion, there are symptoms of loss of orientation in many aspects, the diversity of information and disinformation is considerable, this is a new phenomenon and what we need is an effort to offer people a better sense of orientation. It is very easy for politicians, for the media people to just go with the flow, to one day say this and the next day the opposite, and let people decide for themselves. So this is a new phenomenon. We have to observe it and we should at least try to find a solution.”

Anti-establishment mood

Jan Hartl,  photo: Czech Television
We have witnessed a strong anti-establishment mood both here in the Czech Republic and abroad – the steady popularity of billionaire businessman Andrej Babiš, the election of Donald Trump US president and even Brexit. From where does it stem?

JP:“ I think there are many reasons behind the steep rise in anti-establishment sentiments, but I would name one and that is globalization. I think that globalization has reached a point where economic and technological globalization creates something that we could almost call a planetary civilization –and then we have politics, politics has frozen on the national level and politicians are no longer able to resolve these global challenges –of which there are many – by local political means. So people turn against them and say “you are helpless, you are not doing the things that we want you to do”. The natural response of politicians in many cases is “well, we will go back, we will go back in time, we will barricade ourselves behind national borders and everything will be OK, we will take back control over some of these processes that have escaped us.” But that is a false recipe in my opinion because it goes against what is driven by much stronger forces than just political will. ”

Mr. Hartl, I assume you see this trend in opinion polls…we witnessed it in the Senate and regional elections this year, the success of Andrej Babiš and the dismal failure of the Social Democrats despite the fact that the economy is doing well and we have the lowest unemployment in Europe. Are the traditional parties in a crisis?

JH: “I think that Jiří Pehe is right in the general description of the situation. Taken from a general and very broad perspective, we can explain the phenomenon. The problem is what to do about it and how it is projected at the national level and in local politics. It is true that, not only in this last year but also in the preceding years, people trust less and less not only in political parties – a trend that is especially dramatic in the Czech Republic – but also in institutions of all kinds. If there is a lot of confusion, a lot of volatility, people evaluate their existing experience and they do not find proper solutions. They know that the traditional, conventional parties do not fulfil their expectations, so they look around for something new and hope that the new institutions, new movements will bring about change. Eventually they are disappointed, they see that perhaps this is not the right solution, but it offers the chance that something may improve. And so we have Andrej Babiš and his ANO party, the traditional parties are losing their importance and it opens the door to newcomers.”

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“We were quite happy this year that in the regional and Senate elections the anti-system parties capitalizing on migration and xenophobia did not succeed. But now we have a very strong, or I should say leading political force – the ANO party of Andrej Babiš – and no one knows what it will bring - if it is the arrival of a new political subject, whether it could even activate the civil society, or if we are witnessing the rise of a political monopoly which will destroy the hopes of many people. In a way we are standing on a crossroad –on a crossroad where we did not expect to stand anymore - and where we have to decide whether we are heading West or heading East. There are many questions that are open – such as the future shape of the EU given the problems it faces…we do not have answers to these questions and they are pertinent for the year to come.”

Change of political direction?

Do you see a change of direction in the post-communist states? Looking at what is happening in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and even here…

JH: “So far, so good, I would say, in the Czech Republic. We are warned by the situation in Poland and Hungary, that the secure orientation of the country may be at threat, but it is only a possibility. We are not on the wrong track yet, but we could end up there if we do not care.

Is Vaclav Havel’s legacy gradually being abandoned?

JH: “At this moment we do not observe any departure from pro-Western, pro-EU values. Not yet, but we can perceive this tendency in some politicians, we can perceive it in some media and certainly we can perceive it on social networks. Perhaps it is tempting, at least for some groups of the population. So, I really think that we are on a crossroad.”

President Zeman

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
President Zeman is a highly controversial figure – he is either vehemently hated or supported almost no matter what he does. What is behind this unwavering support by the majority of people?

JP: “That is a difficult question because we would have to analyse a lot of data to find out why he is supported and to what extent he is supported. If you look at the latest opinion polls he is indeed still supported by the majority, but we need to ask ourselves who is the support really for, because in this country the Office of the President is a very important institution, people look up to “the Castle “as we call it and, as one of my very esteemed colleagues, political scientist Bohumil Doležal, says “if we elected a horse to the Castle it would be the most popular politician in the country”. No matter what, because he is the president. So it is very difficult to separate public support for Miloš Zeman from public support for the institution as such. I would argue that if we had elections now, President Zeman would not have majority support behind him. Some of the opinion polls point to it, that he would only get around 40 percent. Of course, during the campaign he could strengthen his position because he is a very good campaigner and I am sure he would find a controversial issue on which he could sway the nation.”

But is there a rival who could seriously challenge him?

JP: “That’s the main problem. If there were to be a serious rival he would have to win over voters from the president’s traditional electorate. It is certain that no matter who runs, that that person will get the support of the so-called Prague Café, of intellectuals and people in the large cities, but in order to win that person has to get support in the smaller cities and the countryside as well and that is a difficult task. But, to answer your question about the popularity of Mr. Zeman, I simply think that 27 years after the fall of communism Czech society is still deeply divided into two basically large camps. One of them I would call “post-communist” people who are still looking to the past with a degree of nostalgia and their way of thinking, rituals and language are still rooted in the past. Mr. Zeman speaks to them very well, he embodies that kind of ethos. And then you have this more modern side of Czech society which we could call post-post-communist, that is a more complex group because it is less homogenous than the other one, but I would argue that this camp is getting stronger.”

JH: “I would like to stress one thing, which we have not touched upon so far, and that is that the older generation is disciplined and goes to the polls, whereas young people – whose future is at stake – simply do not care. Perhaps they discuss these things in cafes, in their companies and clubs, but they do not attend the elections as a kind of protest. We can see that this situation is not improving and if this were to continue it would be a big problem for the future. And this is not only in the Czech Republic, this is elsewhere in the West. So we have to admit that the world is more complicated now. We have to seek solutions and we have to find a way to address the young generation –I think that this is the crucial issue.”

Brexit and Donald Trump

Donald Trump,  photo: Michael Vadon,  CC BY-SA 2.0
Two big events on the international scene this year will shape the future –one is Brexit, the other is the election of Donald Trump US president. What kind of impact may these two events have on domestic and world affairs?

JP: “I think that much depends on how these events impact real life. We still do not know. We can see that Brexit has caused a lot of confusion and problems and, if this continues, then of course there would be fewer people willing to follow this experiment. On the other hand, if the Brits manage to pull it off, so to speak, and set an example for other nations in Europe then others might be tempted to leave the EU, which would be very bad for the alliance. But what I want to say is that really we cannot base any kind of evaluation of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory on real results yet because they are not there yet. It seems to me that the first reactions to Brexit and what followed Donald Trump’s election we could summarize as just confusion. A lot of confusion. And that may be why the Austrians voted for Mr. Van der Bellen in the second round of the Austrian elections, because they saw the results of Brexit and what was going on in the US. But that may not last. It is possible that Donald Trump may turn out to be a good, efficient president and despite all of the things that he has said and that we may think about him and criticize him for he may have good results and then that would be an example for people in Europe to elect politicians like Donald Trump.”

JH: “I think that one issue should be mentioned in this context. We certainly do not know what the outcome of these two events will be, but what we do know from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is that we can observe a victory of political marketing that concentrates on the emotions, there are very few rational arguments in politics these days.”

Is that not a huge danger?

JH: “I perceive it as a huge danger, because it makes the situation very unpredictable. You are not weighing arguments and evaluating them in a rational way, you just flow with the emotional process and this is a real danger for democracy. As Jříi said the world is more complicated, we do not orient ourselves rationally in this complicated world and moreover when we have the chance to decide on our future in the elections we are driven by emotions that are whipped by professionals in marketing politics –so in a way the results of elections may be a pure coincidence –again and again. So we cannot just say well, this is the modern world. I believe we have to do something about it.”

Migrant crisis and fight against terrorism

Berlin attack,  photo: CTK
Looking at the migrant crisis and the fight against terrorism – the Berlin attack is still fresh in our minds – is it changing this society and will it change the way that we live in Europe, radically?

JP: “Well, it has already changed the way we live in Europe. We can see that even the policies of Germany have changed in the last six months. Germany has become much more strict as concerns border control, returning the people who are not granted asylum and so on. It has been changing and of course all politicians in Europe know that something has to be done, a lot of measures have been adopted, and I think the centrepiece of all of this is to provide at least a minimum of humanitarian care and show concern for those people that need our help and at the same time keep the Schengen space together. Because the immediate reaction – a reflex almost – is to close the borders – because that would solve everything, if every country in Europe closes and controls its borders then the refugees cannot come anywhere but to Italy and Greece. But that would be a disaster for Europe –so it is a balancing act between keeping Europe together and finding some kind of solution.”

JP: “As far as migration and terrorism go, I think we have to be very careful about easily connecting the two phenomena, because, of course, there will be some terrorists recruited from the migrant wave or terrorists who were sent as migrants by ISIS and other organizations, but it seems to me that so far the majority of attacks that we have seen in Europe were committed by people who were not fresh migrants. So I think that we are targets of real terrorism on the one hand, but also something I would call terrorism of the mind – that they are trying to pull us into something where we become our own enemies because we jump to conclusions which are not true.”

Mr. Hartl, is the migrant crisis changing Czech society? Ever since the fall of communism, the country has sought to open up to the world, are we closing up again as a result of fear?

Photo: Fotomovimiento,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
JH: “We are on the road to significant change. More than 80 percent of Czechs fear immigrants. That is almost everyone. People have different kinds of fears and they do not fully understand many things. No one is really explaining things, it is too complicated, you have to go into details and your message may not be popular. The easiest solution is just to close the borders and make a lot of fuss about it in the media because you want to pretend that you care for the nation. It is a very simple thing. It would be much more complicated to talk about cohesion, inclusion of those minorities into the society, that sounds very intellectual, a bit boring, no one wants to hear it. But if you simply scare people and make political profit out of it, it is very simple. If that strategy is used in election campaigns it could be a big problem, Thank God, it is not happening yet. But it might do in the future, because all the painful little steps to improve the situation (open up the society) of teaching people this and that, it takes a long time and you will not win too many political points on it.”


To lighten up the debate a little - earlier this year the Czech Foreign Ministry came up with a new short name for the country Czechia –how do you like it and can something that does not come from the grass-roots level, so to speak, catch on?

JP: “I have nothing against the name Czechia, I think it is just a matter of getting used to it, but I think the Czech Republic could do more to help it catch on. I have no seen, so far, any major sports tournament where the official name of the country -Czech Republic- would be replaced by the short version Czechia – and that would go a long way. If you had reports that the national soccer team is playing a match – Czechia against Hungary – then people would get used to it. But it seems to me that it has been done only on a very superficial level and, as such, it will probably not go very far.”

Challenges ahead

Finally a look into the proverbial crystal ball –what are the main challenges ahead of us in the coming year?

JP: “I think they will be very much the same as those we faced this year – because it is part of a process that has not ended, and may even culminate in 2017. Certainly we will see more of the political turmoil that we have seen in Western democracies…much will depend on the outcome of elections in France and in Germany. If –in both of these countries – politicians representing traditional liberal democracy win –then we may be able to turn the tide, if not then, of course, we are in trouble.”

Mr. Hartl, your crystal ball or maybe your opinion surveys –what do they say?

Photo: European Commission
JH: “I would say we have important challenges in the year 2017. I would point to the domestic situation –we have very important parliamentary elections in October which will show how strong the monopoly of power of Andrej Babiš (ANO party) really is. In the past, whenever there was a very strong monopoly, it provoked strong public reaction and sparked a vivid public debate. So we will see whether the Czech public will remain as passive as it has been in the last two or three years. We need much more activity, we need much more interest in public affairs. So let us see whether that challenge will be met. There is a challenge to find a president who would be clearly pro-Western, pro-democratic and pro-European. And the key issue, as I see it, is that we have to reconstitute our pro-European thinking. Our surveys show that if there was a referendum today on joining the EU only some 35 percent of people would be in favour. And no one really understands what has happened since 2010 –particularly in the last three years – that from stable support for the EU at a level of around 60 percent we have now dropped so low – to around 20 percent. So I think the European issue will be crucial, a key issue for the Czech Republic –and whether it finds corresponding reference in the actions of our main political leaders and main parties is the key question I would pose for 2017.”