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Paranoia in Prague as Czechs turn to a populist leader

It is hard to justify the displays of racism and xenophobia on display in the election

ANO leader Andrej Babis at Lany Castle after a meeting with Czech president Milos Zeman following the general election. Photograph: EPA/Martin Divisek

Walking round the streets of Prague city centre and its far-flung suburbs in the weeks before the recent elections, something struck me as strange but I found it hard to put my finger on it. A quick trip back to what is now the increasingly multicultural and multiethnic city of Dublin provided the answer.

In Prague everyone is white. Black and brown faces, and hijabs, are few and far between. In this age, in a European capital, that is remarkable enough. But what is even more remarkable, bewildering even, is that in the recent elections immigration and Islam were among the main issues.

The city was festooned with posters for the far-right SPD party (which won 10 per cent of the vote) proclaiming in large letters: No Islam, No Terrorism. In western Europe, hopefully, such blatant racism would be unacceptable, and would end with the politician in court, as happened to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

But here no one batted an eyelid. The big winner in the election was the ANO (Yes) party led by controversial billionaire businessman Andrej Babis, memorably described to me by one Czech as “Berlusconi without the bungabunga”. One of his key policies, shared with many of the other parties both right and left, is to reject the refugee quotas decreed by Europe.

A refusal which has little consequence. Europe, apparently, has no policeman.

But the point is that there is very little immigration, and so-called Islamic terrorism does not pose any kind of threat. Despite this, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Europe in 2016, the president, Miklos Zeman, called on the 240,000 Czechs who are licensed to carry concealed weapons to carry their weapons at all times in order to deter terrorists.

National paranoia

What lies behind this national paranoia, this fear of the “other”?

All racism is irrational, anti-semitism being only the most obvious case. Down through the ages anti-semitism has been given many justifications. There was the worldwide conspiracy of Jewish bankers, and then the worldwide conspiracy of Jewish Bolsheviks. The recent surge of anti-semitism in Europe is sometimes ascribed to Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank. People will always look for a reason to justify anti-semitism.

Similarly, witness the desperate attempts made by some politicians and media outlets to link the influx of Syrian refuges with the rise in terrorist attacks – the sad truth is that most of the terrorists are disaffected Belgians, French and Spaniards.

On the other hand it could be argued that the Czechs have some good reasons for paranoia. Wedged in between Germany, Austria and Russia/Ukraine, over the centuries, the Czechs have suffered invasion and occupation with depressing regularity. But perhaps worse is the deep trauma of the betrayals by western Europe, like the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the Soviet invasion of 1968.

It is perhaps understandable they have little trust in the goodwill of their European partners. But this history, painful as it is, cannot justify the displays of racism and xenophobia which were on display during this recent election.

The prejudice even extends to within the Czech borders. The Czech Republic has a population of up to 200,000 gypsies, who have been poorly treated since the fall of communism. A recent opinion poll suggested up to half the Czechs would like to see the Roma expelled beyond the borders, and the vast majority of Czechs are opposed to granting any special treatment as an ethnic minority.

Ethnic minority

Not that we Irish can afford to mock such attitudes. We have been slow to accept the required amount of refugees, and it only this year that Irish Travellers were finally recognised as an ethnic minority.

Nor is Irish identity easily threatened by immigration – after all we are surrounded by an ocean, and the borders are relatively easy to police. In addition the chief immigrant groups here, according to the recent census, are Poles, closely followed by the British and the Lithuanians, all of whom can merge seamlessly into the population.

The question remains: why, in the Czech republic, with its proud history as a strong civic society, with a strong economy, high employment and no immigrant problem, have the Czechs turned to a populist leader who resembles in some ways the authoritarian nationalist leaders in Poland and Hungary?

Political beliefs

The answer, I believe, is an uncomfortable one for western Europe.

Claud Cockburn, legendary journalist of the last century and one-time Irish Times columnist, reported from Europe in the 1920s and 30s. In his memoirs he talks of the defining moment in his political beliefs when he lost his romantic support for the independent countries of central Europe, saying that what he thought was resurgent democracy was in fact resurgent nationalism.

It seems to me that the populations of these countries are firmly rejecting the multicultural, multiethnic society which has been quietly assumed by the liberal democratic elite of Europe to be Europe’s ultimate destination.

It looks like some battles may have to be fought all over again.

Michael O’Loughlin is writer-in-residence for Prague Unesco City of Literature