By Nathan Baumgartner
On 20 and 21 October, legislative elections were held in the Czech Republic. Between this election and the previous one held in 2013, many issues began to affect the Czech Republic and, to a larger extent, the European Union. The effects of an influx of refugees into the European Union (although not the Czech Republic) became clear through the increase in popularity of the anti-Islam, anti-immigraton and Eurosceptic Freedom and Direct Democracy – Tomio Okamura party (SPD). In 2013, this party did not exist; therefore, it won no seats in the Chamber of Deputies, analogous to the House of Representatives in the United States. Just last weekend, this party won 22 out of 200 seats, marking only an aspect of political opinion within the Czech Republic changing towards populism, nationalism and Euroscepticism.
The biggest change resulting from this election comes with the success of ANO 2011. Meaning “yes” in Czech, this political party aims to address issues stemming from corruption, legal immunity granted to politicians as well as issues pertaining to unemployment and transportation infrastructure, which remain relatively poor compared to Western and Northern European states. Conceptually, this party sounds amazingly good to the average Czech person. However, this party is led by Andrej Babiš, whose previous and current backgrounds complicate the political environment within the Czech Republic.
Everything about this man reeks of Donald Trump, and not in a good way. Babiš is ranked as the second-wealthiest individual in the Czech Republic, having a net worth of over $4 billion according to Bloomberg. Moreover, Babiš solely owns Agrofert. This is a private Czech company having holdings in a variety of industries ranging from agriculture to media. To top it all off, ANO 2011 is widely regarded as an anti-establishment political party. Its foundations in 2012 are ultimately founded in contempt and distrust towards the normal Czech political process. While Babiš does not engage in Twitter nearly as much as the President of the United States does, corruption has played a significant role in his tumultuous role as Minister of Finance between 2014 and 2017. It has been alleged, according to Czech media, that Babiš’ Agrofert has received secretive subsidies from the European Union. This led to his eventual resignation in May of this year, but also triggered backlash from many Czechs both due to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic’s insistence that he himself resign and the President of the Czech Republic’s slow reaction towards the alleged activities of Babiš.
And yet Babiš remains steadfastly popular amongst many Czechs. Compared to the elections in 2013, where ANO 2011 received 47 of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, ANO 2011 received 78 of 200 seats. Why? First, the Czech Republic ranks as one of the most racist/prejudice member states of the European Union, according to statistics compiled by various sources throughout the European Union. Exposure to people of different backgrounds remains relatively low within the country: according to Czech statistics, people of foreign backgrounds constitute no more than two percent of the population living within the Czech Republic. This percentage not only includes people of different religious backgrounds, but also people from other European Union member states. In various surveys, different sample sizes of Czech citizens seemingly indicate a general openness to foreign peoples. However, when asked specifically about what role foreign people should play within the Czech Republic, prejudices towards people deemed distinct from a white, European identity were the most criticized. 44 percent of the Czech population believes that foreigners of any identity bring increased crime and take jobs away from Czech citizens. In regards to the rights of Roma living within the Czech Republic, 55.2 percent of polled Czechs prefer to not have Roma living within their country. Similar statistics regarding Afghans (55 percent), Albanians (52 percent) as well as Vietnamese, Romanians and Ukrainians show a general wish amongst Czech citizens to preserve a Czech identity.
Another aspect which must be brought to light within the Czech Republic is a generational divide between those who have largely grown up before the Czech Republic joined the European Union and those who have grown up after. Joining the European Union has brought many benefits for people within our generation of current college-aged students. For example, the ERASMUS program, essentially an EU-wide program facilitating the general equivalent of study abroad programs throughout the EU, has introduced Czech students to different ways of life that their parents would have had difficulty accessing twenty years ago. One of my Czech friends, for example, is now participating in an ERASMUS exchange program in Amsterdam. He originally studies in Denmark. His significant strides in learning not only English, but Danish and now even Dutch in addition to his native Czech indicate a general trend of people within our generation of becoming more culturally exposed and integrated within different levels of European society.
This comes with negative feedback from largely older generations, which cannot participate in these programs like we can. 60.8 percent of the eligible Czech voting population actually voted. This number is only a tad higher than the estimated 54.7 percent of the voting population of the United States who actually voted. The similarities between politics of the United States and the Czech Republic are painfully clear. These similarities are not good: if what is happening within the Czech Republic makes us cringe, we need to look ourselves in the mirror. We have affected political discourse in various states throughout the world. We cannot ignore this fact. Thus, it is up to us as citizens of the United States whether we do so in a positive or negative way.