Between Bizarre and Extremism: Czech Hard Euroscepticism in the 2017 Elections

Vít Hloušek and Petr Kaniok

The Czech Republic is (in)famous for its extraordinary high level of Euroscepticism. The public continuously declares very low levels of trust in the EU and perceives terrorism and immigration as the main threats despite the fact that there have not been any terrorist attacks there and the number of migrants from Syria or Africa reached staggering figure of 12. As we have shown, Euroscepticism is also widespread among the Czech political elites as well, and it remains vibrant and able to cope with new challenges. Fortunately, Soft Euroscepticism prevails among the relevant political parties and Hard Euroscepticism typically falls behind the threshold of 5% that assures parliamentary representation in the House of Deputies. Nevertheless, the landscape of the Czech Hard Euroscepticism prior to the 2017 elections was colourful and composed of many species and it the Czech Hard Eurosceptic political parties that we will present in this post.

The most traditional – and, one might add, “normal” – Czech Hard Eurosceptic party is the Party of Free Citizens (Svobodní). Established in early 2009 by groups of former members of the Civic Democrats (ODS) who did not agree with party’s EU policy, the Free Citizens have been combining Hard Euroscepticism with libertarianism. In 2014, Svobodní surprisingly succeeded in the European Parliament (EP) elections and send its leader Petr Mach to Brussels. In coming years, the party has tried to use this presence for domestic purposes, but without visible success. Even though party leader Mach has tried to extend the party´s scope and correct its single issue perception, Svobodni has remained known particularly for their harsh critique of the EU. This did not change in its 2017 electoral manifesto. European integration was characterized there as a “dead end” due to its un-democratic nature and incompatibility with European values such as freedom, democracy and accountability. Svobodni, therefore, called for an EU membership referendum and recommended ‘Czexit’. As an alternative model of European co-operation, the party suggested an architecture based upon inter-governmental principles typical of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). However, voters do not seem to care – Svobodní were far away from the 5% threshold in every published poll and its support did not increase even when Petr Mach left the EP in late August claiming that national elections were his priority.

The second Hard Eurosceptic party which has, since its establishment in November 2016, tried to carefully build up non-extremist reputation are Realists (Realisté). The party was founded by Petr Robejšek, a political scientist and commentator living for a long time in Germany. In the first phase of its existence, the party rhetoric obviously tried to copycat the “professorial” style typical of the Alliance for Germany (AfD) during its first years. Mr Robejšek confidentially announced the Realists could get 20% of votes in the elections but, as in case of Svobodní, the party was almost invisible in the polls. Concerning the EU, Realists put strong emphasis on security issues claiming that the whole of Czech policy, including EU policy, had to treat the national security as the most important issue. The Realists also suggested that term “national interest” should be included into the Czech Constitution as being superior to supranational commitments, and explicitly rejected joining the Eurozone.

Moving on to the club of gentlemen who are not as cultivated as Messrs Mach and Robejšek, let us start with the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party led by Tomio Okamura, an incumbent MP. Mr Okamura is not a newcomer on the Czech far right Eurosceptic scene. His current political project is a product of a in the Dawn of Direct Democracy (Úsvit) party that scored well enough to get 14 MPs in 2013. The Dawn of Direct Democracy broke up quickly and Mr Okamura founded the new Freedom and Direct Democracy party. The new party’s electoral manifesto, For Democracy and Freedom: Never Again about Us without Us, stressed the notion of Czech sovereignty and called for referendum that would lead to Czexit (“Stop the EU dictate. We will leave in the English style”). After Czexit, EFTA would be enough to continue economic exchange with the EU member countries. The main electoral blockbuster of the party is, however, triggering fear of Muslim migrants depicted as terrorists endangering the Czech way of life and the very existence of the Czech nation. This simple and frenetically employed message connected with the well-known face of Tomio Okamura to make Freedom and Direct Democracy the only real candidate for parliamentary seats among the Czech far right Hard Eurosceptic parties.

The other offspring of the Dawn of Direct Democracy party fared far worse in the pre-election polls despite its ability to keep part of the name of the former party. Dawn-National Coalition (Ú-NK) is the heir of the former Dawn of Direct Democracy not only in name but also in its extremely “economical” way of drafting manifestos. The only larger material dealt with the direct democracy as a panacea to all current political troubles. There was no official manifesto aimed at presentation of the party´s position in 2017 elections, so we had to be satisfied with statements from the general policy line claiming that “Europe without barriers” and opposing “centralisation of power in supranational organisations, such as the European Commission, the European Parliaments and other similar institutions”. Browsing the party’s blog also reveals that the migrants are the most criticized and hottest electoral topic for this party too.

There are plenty of other parties carrying the Hard Eurosceptic flag, although of much less political relevance. Typically, these are far right parties that derive their Hard Eurosceptic policies from their extremist ideology. Some of these parties – such as the Rally for the Republic-Republican Party of Czechoslovakia founded by the veteran of Czech far right politics Miroslav Sládek, or the Workers´ Party of Social Justice related closely to skinhead scene – have their roots in a longer tradition of being present in Czech politics. Others are the products of personal feuds within the Party of Free Citizens, such as the ‘Referendum on the EU’ movement. This particular movement was founded by the former vice-chair of the Party of Free Citizens František Matějka and is literally a single-issue party calling for the referendum that would guide the Czech Republic out of the EU. Reading the manifestos of the other far right parties – the Anti-Islam Bloc, the Common Sense Party, the Czech National Front, or Order of Nation-Patriotic Union to list just a few – they have two features in common. They stress the threat posed by Muslim migrants who are identified automatically with terrorists. In addition, they call for a referendum that would trigger Czexit. The far right parties are not alone in covering these topics. A similar programme on the EU is a feature of a quite bizarre movement called ‘The Sportspeople’. In their manifesto, nicely called With Sport against the Drugs, Alcohol, and Hazard Games: Let Us Save Us, Our Children, Homeland, and Our Civilisation, the Sportspeople are against migration but they do not want a referendum nor Czexit but “merely” to “abandon the Lisbon Treaty”.

We should not forget that there is also one centre-left Hard Eurosceptic party in the Czech Republic. The main message of the Party of Citizens´ rights (SPO) is that “by voting us, you support President Miloš Zeman”. This is hardly a surprise given the roots and history of the party. In 2008, a tiny group of former ministers and other political collaborators of former prime minister Miloš Zeman formed the ‘Friends of Miloš Zeman’ club and, a year later, the Party of Citizen´s Rights-Zemanites replaced the club. After failing to get into to the House of Deputies in 2013, Mr Zeman (who remains the honorary chair of the party) forced the party to abandon its official nickname ‘Zemanites’ (Zemanovci) but the party has continued to serve as a club to support, and megaphone to promote, the views of Miloš Zeman. Traditionally represented by uncharismatic leaders, the party decided to boost its chances to cross the 5% threshold in 2017 by placing the popular musician, painter and showman František “Ringo” Čech in the position of an electoral leader. This former drummer was involved in politics in the 1990s being a member of the Prague City Council and MP for the Czech Social Democratic Party in 1996-1998. Many of his interviews presented the Party of Citizens’ Rights in a rather erratic way that was not focusing on the programme at all but stressed the idea that President Zeman was the cleverest and the most skilful Czech politician: “The people would be better off if Miloš (Zeman) would have more powers”. Mr Zeman’s views on the EU are unclear (indeed, it is not clear whether he has any) apart from mobilising fear of Muslim migrants. The party’s electoral manifesto, Strong Czech Roots for the Citizens of This Country, states that “The EU has been in reality ceasing to fulfil its basic functions” and therefore, a plebiscite shall decide as soon as possible the question of Czech membership of the EU. The Czech Republic, it argues, has to abandon the EU trajectory anyway in order to strengthen cooperation with other Central European countries in the so-called Visegrád Group and foster economic relations with Asian countries, especially China. Here, as well, migrants were felt to constitute the main threat for the Czech security.

We can make a couple of generalisations from the positions taken by the parties discussed above. The attractiveness of an outright critique towards the EU, requiring Czexit, seems to have increased in the recent years. However, Hard Euroscepticism is not appealing per se. It only becomes relevant as a by-product of harsh critique of the domestic political system as expressed by political protest parties such as Freedom and Direct Democracy. Parties which use Hard Euroscepticism as their single policy (or one of their most important policies) such as Svobodní and the Realists are far from being relevant. This suggests that Hard Euroscepticism still has a very limited potential for Czech politics.

The election results confirmed this view. The only Hard Eurosceptic party that entered the Lower House of the Czech Parliament was Mr Okamura´s Freedom and Direct Democracy with 10.64%of the vote. From the others, only Svobodni reached at least the 1.5% threshold (1.56% in fact) to guarantee them some re-imbursement of the costs spent on the campaign. The rest were simply marginalized: The Common Sense Party scored 0.72%, the Realists 0.71%, the Party of Citizens´ Rights 0.36%, the Sportspeople 0.20%, the Workers´ Party of Social Justice 0.20%, Mr Sládek´s Republicans 0.19%, the Order of Nation 0.17%, the Anti-Islam Bloc 0.10%, and Referendum on the EU 0.08%. The Czech National Front obtained just 117 out of 5,060,759 valid votes.

Vít Hloušek (hlousek@fss.muni.cz) is Professor of European Politics at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. His pedagogical research areas of specialization cover the contemporary history and comparative politics of Central-Eastern European countries with a special focus on Europeanisation of domestic party politics. His is the author of the books Origin, Ideology and Transformation of Political Parties. East-Central and Western Europe Compared (Routledge, with L. Kopecek) and Europeanised Defiance – Czech Euroscepticism since 2004 (Barbara Budrich Publishers, with P. Kaniok and V. Havlik), among others.

Petr Kaniok (kaniok@fss.muni.cz) works as Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno. He is interested in the political system of the European Union, European citizenship and the politics of CEE countries. Most recently, his work has been published by Journal of Contemporary European Research and East European Politics.

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