Jiří Pehe: anti-establishment attitudes and widespread disinterest in politics may have to do with historic traumas

Jiří Pehe, photo: Katarína Brezovská

Elections to the European Parliament came and went almost unnoticed in the Czech Republic, where over 80 percent of voters simply ignored them. The record-low turnout of 18.2 percent was surpassed only in neighbouring Slovakia where a mere 13 percent of voters bothered to cast their ballot. Why did the Czechs and Slovaks – who are closely bound by history – turn their backs on the European elections? Political analyst Jiří Pehe says it may not be a coincidence and argues that both the past and present have played a role in forming these attitudes.

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Katarína Brezovská
“In general the Czechs do not show much interest in European affairs and one could attribute this to the last ten years of political developments in the Czech Republic when we had a strongly Eurosceptic president accompanied by two governments headed by the Civic Democratic Party, which was also strongly Eurosceptic, and I think this ideological massage has played its role. On the one hand people think that the EU is a project that we cannot ignore – given its history and location the Czech Republic must be part of it – but at the same time, they believe to a large extent what the former president Vaclav Klaus used to say - that we have no real influence on what is going on in the EU. And if you think that you have no influence on European affairs then obviously you are not going to vote.”

According to a recent poll 48 percent of Czechs think elections to the European Parliament are useless “because they won’t change anything anyway” and almost half of respondents said the country’s membership in the EU had not impacted their lives in any way – how is that possible?

“This view clearly points to the failure of political parties and the media in the Czech Republic to explain EU issues to the broad public, because no matter what we may think about the European Parliament it does influence what happens in the Czech Republic or in any other country of the European Union, 80 percent of our legislation is taken over from Europe and I think it is clear the European Parliament is now in many ways a more important institution in shaping our future than the Czech Parliament. So membership in the EU – in the good sense and bad sense – influences each of us, every day. And if people do not see that, then obviously something is wrong with the way that politicians and the media explain how the European Union works and how it influences our lives.”

Why is it in particular the Czechs and Slovaks who appear to be the least interested in European affairs or who is at the helm in Europe?

Photo: CTK
"This is a very interesting question and I think it is not a coincidence that interest in EU affairs is lowest in Central and Eastern Europe –in the new member states - and among those states it is really low in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. One must ask oneself if this has to do with their traumatic past – Czechoslovakia’s traumas after the Warsaw-pact invasion of 1968 and the period of normalization that followed and whether we have not fully recovered from that very difficult period. We can see in both countries – in contrast to West European states, but also in contrast to other East European countries – a very low degree of respect for politics and democratic processes and I would argue that political analysts as well as the media should maybe focus more on explaining the possible roots of the widespread disinterest in politics in the Czech Republic and Slovakia from a cultural and historical perspective, rather than looking at the problems and failures of the EU by way of explanation.”

But we and the Slovaks are not the only post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe –if it is to do with our past…

“I think that if we look at the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe we see that Poland and Hungary –despite their communist past – followed a slightly different trajectory’. They were able to establish a degree of liberalization in the 1980s and the fact that there were civil societies in those countries even before the 1989 fall of communism seems to play a role. If you look at the Baltic states, obviously for them being part of the EU – however imperfect –is a very important security issue and people vote and are interested in European affairs simply because it is extremely important for them in the light of Russia’s expansionist policies. And then there are the Balkan countries where – although their history is also very traumatic – voting for the EU is a statement, it is an effort –much more so than here – to return to Europe. The Czechs and Slovaks feel that they have always been part of Europe and don’t see the need to make a special effort to return to it, but for Romanians and Bulgarians it is really a statement, so to speak, because they are considered by most other EU members to be institutionally backward and somewhat byzantine.”

Photo: CTK
So the crisis in Ukraine has not impacted Czech voters in terms of making them feel that membership in the EU is important?

“I think the crisis in Ukraine has not played an important role in voters’ behaviour in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Perhaps if the two countries had a common border with Russia they would behave differently, but at this point it seems that the Czechs and Slovaks feel safer with regard to Russia that say the Poles or the Baltic states. This fear may be a mobilizing factor that prompted a lot of people in the Baltic states to vote and make a statement on the EU, but this factor is clearly not present in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.”

Is Czechs’ failure to go to the polls an anti-establishment message or is it a deep mistrust of decisions made outside the country’s borders?

“I think both factors are present. The Czech political establishment itself is in crisis. We can see a lack of interest in politics, in democratic politics, a certain distrust of the liberal democracy, all of that is present in Czech politics and I think that all of these factors combine and play a role in how the Czechs view the European Union. They have not found their place in the system of liberal democracy that the EU – despite all of its problems – represents. We can see it also in Czech domestic politics where people vote for parties and movements which really cast doubts on this system. And then also, a lot of people simply take EU membership for granted and doubt they can make any impact on how things in the EU are decided. It may be to some extent true that the smaller the country, the smaller the influence, but at the same time people in equally small countries to the west of us are convinced that it makes sense to vote and that they can make some impact on what’s going on in Europe. Perhaps it is this historical trauma of ours – of having been ruled by Vienna, Berlin and Moscow for many centuries where decisions were made in those capitals on behalf of the Czechs - that plays a role in how the Czechs view Brussels today. “

Is it in the power of this government and Czech politicians in general to turn this attitude around or will it need a major effort from Brussels as well?

European Parliament,  photo: Pavel Novák
“I think that both Brussels and the Czech political elite have to make an effort to change the attitude of the Czech public towards the European Union. The EU needs to affect some reforms and that is true not only with regard to the Czech public but with regard to the public across Europe. And obviously, if that does not happen then trust in the EU will continue to decline. As far as the domestic political elite is concerned I think that much more could be done. I think it is positive that in the last few months we have seen a pro-European turn, that is certainly a change, however the ten years of a Eurosceptic president and a Eurosceptic government still have this delayed effect on the minds of many voters. So while most of those who actually voted cast their ballot in favour of pro-European parties, which is a sharp turn from the past, at the same time more voters than ever before abstained from voting. So there are these two contradicting developments in the Czech Republic –growing support for pro-European parties, but at the same time more people simply ignoring the European elections – and there, especially, in that second group I think Czech politicians still have some work to do in explaining what the EU is good for, how it could be changed and what the Czechs could do to help that process. ”