Elephants in the Room

The Fight Against European Populism Is Far From Over

Czech President Milos Zeman’s re-election sends a clear message.

Czech President Milos Zeman celebrates his re-election on Jan. 27 in Prague. (Radek Mica/AFP/Getty Images)
Czech President Milos Zeman celebrates his re-election on Jan. 27 in Prague. (Radek Mica/AFP/Getty Images)

After a recent spate of elections across Europe saw a resurgence in the strength of mainstream politicians, European elites grew increasingly optimistic that the continent’s experiment with populism was finally winding down. Czech President Milos Zeman’s re-election in last weekend’s runoff, like a burst of cold January rain, has dampened their hopes.

That is not to underplay the importance of the defeats that insurgent, populist political movements suffered throughout 2017. Right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders was closed out of government in the Netherlands, French President Emmanuel Macron decisively dispatched Marine Le Pen’s National Front, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — despite her ongoing difficulties in forming a coalition government — somehow managed to stay atop a rapidly changing electoral landscape.

With incumbent Zeman’s lackluster win in the first round of the presidential election two weeks ago, it looked like the defeat of this pro-Russia, pro-China Eurosceptic was within reach. Yet in the end these hopes were no match for his increasingly hardline anti-immigrant message. Opposition candidate Jiri Drahos was unable to counter the attacks from Zeman’s side effectively and could not dispel Zeman’s accusations that he was too inexperienced for the job. While Zeman’s margin of victory in the second round was quite close (51.36 percent to 48.63 percent), he and his supporters are painting this victory as a chance to get Prague’s intellectual cafe-haunting elites to finally “shut their mouths.”

Zeman’s victory isn’t just a blow to the Czech opposition and its cultural trappings — European Union leaders were fervently hoping for a Drahos victory. Zeman capitalized on popular frustrations with the EU, and particularly its liberal policies toward refugees and migrants. Although Drahos opposed the EU quota system mandating immigration distribution throughout EU member states, he took a softer tone on Muslim immigrants than did Zeman, who has claimed that Middle Eastern migrants are essentially unassimilable. Zeman has also capitalized on the momentum generated by Brexit to call for a referendum on Czech membership in the EU and NATO, in contrast with Drahos’ strong support for them.

Alarmingly, Zeman has struck up an increasingly warm relationship with Russia, and takes positions which no doubt please the Kremlin: He opposes the EU sanctions leveled against Russia in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, denies the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, and has expressed vocal support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zeman has brushed aside reports of Russian meddling and disinformation spreading into the Czech Republic despite mounting evidence, and opposed the Czech Interior Ministry’s attempts to combat this threat through the new Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats.

In contrast, Drahos was outspoken about Russian meddling in Western countries, and argued that Russia influenced the Czech Republic’s October parliamentary elections through disinformation campaigns. He has lobbied Czech political leaders and intelligence services to increase monitoring and reporting of Russian disinformation efforts. Drahos told the Washington Post it was “logical” to assume that a nasty online disinformation campaign just before the runoff vote, accompanied by a surge in advertising of unknown origin which targeted him, could be traced to “the Russian secret service and related organizations.”

Zeman also has a soft spot for China. Chinese engagement in the Czech Republic has been on the rise for the past four years, spurred on in part by Zeman’s active engagement. This includes Chinese leadership of the so-called 16+1 summit between China and Eastern European nations that officials in Brussels and Berlin worry creates clefts between EU member states. Zeman was the only Western leader to take part in the Beijing military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015. In return, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first-ever visit by a Chinese head of state to Prague in 2016, when the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement that enhanced ties between ministries, legislatures, and local governments. On this occasion, Zeman blamed pressure from the United States for what was previously a bad relationship between Prague and Beijing.

Although the office of the president is largely ceremonial, Zeman has used this platform to take a radically different approach to a number of high-profile human rights questions, effectively burying what was left of the Havel aura that remained affiliated with the presidency. When the Dalai Lama visited the Czech Republic in 2016, he was not permitted to participate in any meetings in the vicinity of Prague Castle, and Zeman issued a strongly worded statement in support of Chinese “territorial integrity” — a clear rebuke to the three government ministers who met with the Tibetan leader.

How significant will Zeman’s victory be in determining the direction of Czech politics? Zeman’s re-election helps level the pathway for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens party leader, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, to form a government, even as he faces an investigation in an ongoing corruption scandal.  Zeman had already called upon Babis to form a majority after the October 2017 parliamentary elections, which Babis was unable to do after his minority government failed to win parliament’s vote of confidence. Babis will need a second mandate from the president in order to form a government, and can count on Zeman’s backing.

Zeman’s re-election also reflects a worrying trend in Czech politics of cynicism and apathy toward the transatlantic institutions that have been so vital in securing the country’s democratic development in the post-communist period. Recent polling reflects negative attitudes toward the European project, NATO, and a desire to cooperate with Russia — sentiments that play into the hands of the Kremlin and its allies throughout Europe. The message to the Czech and European political status quo is clear: No matter how many wins the pan-European establishment has been able to rack up in the past year, the fight is far from over.

Jan Surotchak is regional director for Europe at the International Republican Institute, overseeing the Institute’s initiative to counter Russian meddling, the Beacon Project. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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