Czech Republic: voters opt for fear over facts

To the Kremlin’s delight, a populist who peddles scare stories about refugees has won re-election

The Kremlin will be happy with the outlook after the victory of incumbent Milos Zeman’s in the Czech presidential election. It means continued political uncertainty in the Czech Republic, deepening divisions in Europe and another five years in Prague Castle for a critic of western sanctions on Russia. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

The Kremlin will be happy with the outlook after the victory of incumbent Milos Zeman’s in the Czech presidential election. It means continued political uncertainty in the Czech Republic, deepening divisions in Europe and another five years in Prague Castle for a critic of western sanctions on Russia. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

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In the end, Czechs chose Milos Zeman, and fear. Despite enjoying economic growth, the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and no prospect of mass immigration, Czechs re-elected a president who peddles scare stories about refugees and suspicion of Brussels.

His narrow run-off victory this weekend was based on overwhelming support from the Czech regions, where people feel short-changed by EU membership and cheated by a corruption-tainted political elite. Zeman, claiming to be the voice of the provincial pub rather than Prague cafe society, saw off pro-EU liberal Jiri Drahos and celebrated in the company of family, friends and allies including far-right leader Tomio Okamura.

While Okamura has urged Czechs to walk pigs near mosques and to boycott kebabs because their vendors may be funding terrorism, Zeman claims that Muslim refugees will cut off thieves’ hands and stone adulterous women.

Such fear-mongering has found fertile ground in the Czech Republic, just as it has in Hungary and Poland, other almost all-white states that have tiny immigrant communities and reject EU efforts to relocate refugees around the bloc.

Brussels is suing all three countries for refusing to accept their quota of refugees, and Zeman’s victory will be welcomed by leaders in Budapest and Warsaw who want to strengthen central Europe’s resistance to what they call EU meddling.

They can now look forward to Zeman trying to ensure that the next Czech government is led by Andrej Babis, a billionaire tycoon who also opposes immigration and deeper EU integration, albeit less stridently than the president. Babis faces prosecution over allegations that one of his firms illegally accessed EU funds, and his nascent government was forced to step down last week after losing a confidence vote in parliament.

Zeman immediately nominated Babis again, however, and asked him to continue as caretaker premier while seeking support from a majority of deputies. On Friday, Babis joined the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in Budapest to declare that they would stand together in negotiations on how to reform the EU.

The four leaders urged Brussels to respect the sovereignty of member states and to scrap any thought of linking future EU funding to how recipients adhere to democratic values – a key issue for Poland and Hungary as their governments face legal action over alleged attacks on the rule of law.

The Kremlin will also be happy with the outlook after Zeman’s victory – continued political uncertainty in the Czech Republic, deepening divisions in Europe and another five years in Prague Castle for a critic of western sanctions on Russia. Zeman’s victory is symptomatic of the pessimism and prejudice that have taken hold of much of Europe. Progressive leaders must find a cure before the malaise spreads even further.

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