Czech Democracy Under Pressure
The victory of populist oligarch Andrej Babiš in October 2017 general elections and the January 2018 reelection of pro-Russian president Miloš Zeman seemed to move the Czech Republic closer to illiberal regimes such as those of Hungary and Poland. For several reasons, however, the Czech Republic may not follow the path of these two countries. Its system of constitutional checks and balance is stronger than those in Poland and Hungary, and Babiš is a pragmatist who does not want to create a deep divide between the Czech Republic and the rest of the European Union.
In the early 1990s, the Czech Republic was seen as one of the most successful postcommunist countries. Despite initial difficulties, including the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia with the 1993 Velvet Divorce, it gradually managed to create a relatively well-functioning market economy and transform the one-party communist regime that had ruled until 1989 into a lively multiparty system. Its president from 1993 to 2003, former dissident Václav Havel, was highly respected abroad, leading the country's efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Havel also played an important role in urging his fellow citizens to start building a vibrant civil society, which he saw as the foundation of a viable democratic system.
After the end of Havel's presidency, however, politicians with a narrower vision of democracy, such as Václav Klaus (a former conservative prime minister who was elected president in 2003), took over. As president, Klaus increasingly leaned on nationalist, Euroskeptic views. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which Klaus founded in 1991 and which presided over the corruption-ridden process of privatization in the early 1990s, led two governments from 2006 to 2013, but continued to ignore signs that a growing number of people were becoming dissatisfied due to massive corruption. Weakened by the effects of the 2008 world financial crisis, the second ODS government collapsed, opening the way for the opposition Social Democrats and for populist parties that promised to fight corruption. One of these parties was ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), a movement created by billionaire Andrej Babiš (b. 1954); this new party finished second in the 2013 parliamentary elections. [End Page 65]
In recent years, the political landscape of the Czech Republic has changed even more significantly. The parliamentary elections of October 2017 and the January 2018 presidential vote represented landmarks in this process. In the parliamentary vote, ANO soundly defeated the traditional center-right and center-left parties (the ODS and the Social Democratic Party) that had governed the country since the early 1990s. Adding to the mainstream parties' woes were strong showings by other antiestablishment forces. In the presidential contest—the second since a 2012 constitutional amendment instituted direct presidential elections—the victor was the populist, pro-Russian, blunt-spoken incumbent Miloš Zeman (b. 1944), first elected in 2013. Zeman, an informal ally of Babiš, won reelection in the second round over independent challenger Jiri Drahoš.
Both Babiš and Zeman have capitalized politically on anxiety over migration, and both have been caught up in scandals of varying dimensions during their time in office. Since late 2017, the two have also cooperated to keep an ANO government in power without majority support in Parliament, thus undermining Czech constitutional norms. In these regards, they might appear to be cut from the same cloth as populist politicians in neighboring Hungary and Poland. Yet the Czech Republic's robust system of checks and balances, as well as Babiš's interest in maintaining positive relations with the EU, stands in the way of any further attempts at weakening the liberal-democratic system. Moreover, a pronounced generational divide among voters may portend a new direction for Czech politics in years to come.
An Antiestablishment Wave
In the October 2017 vote, nine parties secured seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the bicameral Czech Parliament. With about 30 percent of the popular vote and 78 seats, ANO emerged as the dominant political force. The most successful of the traditional parties, the conservative Civic Democratic Party—which had headed four governments since 1992—finished a distant second with 25. Following closely with 22 seats each were two relatively new anti-establishment forces: the extreme-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Movement (SPD), led by Tomio Okamura, and the Czech Pirate Party.
Next to the strong performance of ANO, the biggest story of the elections was a sharp decline in support for the traditional leftist parties: the center-left Social Democrats and the far-left Communists. Both suffered big losses. With 15 seats and roughly 8 percent of the vote, the Communists recorded a historically poor result. The Social Democrats, who had headed the previous government, also took only 15 seats and some 7 percent of the popular vote—13 percent less than in the previous elections in 2013. Finally, three smaller center-right parties—TOP 09, the [End Page 66] Christian Democrats, and the Mayors and Independents—each narrowly surpassed the 5 percent threshold for representation in the Chamber. If we count the Communists, the Pirates, and the SPD together with ANO, the populist and antiestablishment parties now hold a clear majority of seats.
Despite his party's electoral success, Babiš's efforts to form a government have run into difficulties. By cooperating with Okamura's extreme-right movement and the Communists, both of which were willing to support an ANO minority government, he could have secured a comfortable majority of 115 seats. He was, however, clearly reluctant to base his government on the backing of extreme-right and extreme-left parties. At the same time, his ability to negotiate with the other, democratic parties was limited by the fact that most of them had ruled out participating in a government headed by Babiš. They made this decision not only because they viewed ANO as the authoritarian project of an oligarch who had repeatedly shown little respect for parliamentary democracy, but also because Babiš faces criminal prosecution for allegedly misappropriating EU funds. (The case involves a possible attempt to obscure the ownership of a resort and farm complex so that this complex would appear eligible for EU small-business subsidies.) One of the first decisions of the newly elected Chamber of Deputies was to strip Babiš of his parliamentary immunity at the request of the Czech police. In addition, the Nation's Memory Institute in Slovakia holds communist-era secret-police files suggesting that Babiš was an agent, a factor that has heightened the democratic parties' reluctance to work with him.
President Zeman had formed an alliance with Babiš after ANO's second-place finish in the 2013 parliamentary elections, following which ANO had joined a coalition government with the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. After ANO increased its seat share in the 2017 vote, Zeman helped Babiš to bypass the other parties. He named Babiš prime minister in December 2017 even though Babiš had not secured majority support, and promised to give ANO's leader a second chance to form a government if his first government did not pass a vote of confidence. Zeman followed through on this promise when Babiš's government predictably lost such a vote in January 2018. The president initially gave Babiš an unlimited amount of time to form his second government, although he has since indicated that he would like Babiš to form a government with majority support by June.
Babiš started negotiations about his second government without making any major concessions. He has rejected suggestions that he nominate someone else from his movement as prime minister and has continued to deny all charges against him, claiming to be the victim of a conspiracy organized by rivals who want to push him out of politics. Although most of the democratic parties at first held firm in refusing to join a government headed by Babiš, the Social Democrats in February 2018 [End Page 67] decided to start negotiations about entering a two-party coalition with ANO that would be supported by the Communists. These negotiations briefly collapsed due to disagreements over key cabinet appointments, but Babiš—after considering for several days a recommendation from President Zeman to base his government on the support of the Communists and Okamura's movement—eventually succeeded in reopening them. As of this writing in June 2018, the formation of a government was still contingent on an internal party referendum to be held by the Social Democrats. Zeman nonetheless renewed Babiš's appointment as prime minister on June 6.
The Presidential Vote and Its Consequences
When the presidential campaign began, Zeman's chances for reelection were uncertain. His first term had been marred by series of scandals, which ranged from an apparent slight of a Holocaust survivor to a comment about "liquidating" journalists, to various allegations of misconduct by members of his staff. Zeman had also taken controversial pro-Russian stances that sometimes ran counter to the Czech government's official policies. His serious health problems also made him vulnerable even in the eyes of some of his supporters, who were concerned about his ability to represent the country well. Preelection opinion polls had shown that among Zeman's eight challengers, chemistry professor and political novice Jiri Drahoš had a particularly solid chance of unseating the incumbent.
In the election's first round, Zeman won a plurality of 38.6 percent of the popular vote, while Drahoš took 26.6 percent. There were several other formidable candidates: Pavel Fischer, a former ambassador and onetime political aide to President Havel, finished third despite having entered the race quite late. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the election came in the form of young physician Marek Hilšer, who had gained a name as an activist; with the support of about 9 percent of voters, this political newcomer took fifth place. Meanwhile, former ODS prime minister Mirek Topolánek, weighed down by corruption scandals surrounding his time in office, was sharply rejected by voters and finished a distant sixth.
Since no candidate obtained the majority necessary for a first-round victory, the top two candidates headed for a second round. A majority of the defeated candidates declared their support for Drahoš. As some observers noted, the election had turned into a contest between Zeman and "anti-Zeman," with the comparatively circumspect and Europhilic Drahoš becoming the face of the anti-Zeman camp. Backers of the "anti-Zeman" camp were able to come together and mount a serious challenge. One week before the runoff, Drahoš was still ahead in most opinion polls.
In the end, however, Zeman pulled ahead, claiming 51.4 percent of the vote against 48.6 for Drahoš. Zeman was able to win a second term [End Page 68]
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mainly due to a combination of his association with Babiš and the unleashing of aggressive, often slanderous attacks against his opponent. Drahoš lost the support of many Babiš voters by declaring that he would not appoint a criminally prosecuted politician as prime minister, which made it easy for ANO's leader to throw his support behind Zeman.
Meanwhile, billboards financed by a civic association called "Friends of Miloš Zeman" portrayed Drahoš as a danger to the country on the ground that he would supposedly welcome migrants from Muslim-majority states. An internet campaign of unknown origins depicted Drahoš as a collaborator of the communist-era secret police and possibly a pedophile. Raising the threat of Moscow's election meddling, Drahoš hinted that Russian disinformation operations could be behind these slanderous attacks. Since he was unable to provide evidence, however, his strategy backfired.
Zeman's campaign centered on portraying him as a strong leader who would be able to protect the country from external dangers, and in particular from migrants. To press this message, he went so far as to attend the congress of Okamura's extreme-right SPD, known for its aggressively anti-Islam stance. And he was indeed able to mobilize Okamura's electorate to take part in the second round, which might have decided the election in his favor. Turnout, at 66 percent, was 5 percent higher than in the first round.
The serious challenges now facing Czech democracy come neither from Babiš on his own nor from Zeman on his own, but rather from the cooperation between these two figures. After Babiš's first government resigned upon failing to pass its vote of confidence, Zeman allowed it to continue in office as a caretaker government for an extended period. Through this move, he has created a de facto "presidential" government, one whose tenure and composition depend to some extent on the president. This is a troubling development: The Czech Republic's constitutional order defines the country as a parliamentary republic, which [End Page 69] means that the government should be accountable to Parliament. By allowing the protracted existence of a government that had not passed a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, Zeman effectively bypassed the constitutional order.
This was not Zeman's first attempt to bypass the constitution and create a government dependent on him, rather than on Parliament. After the center-right government of Petr Nečas collapsed in 2013, Zeman ignored Parliament's lower chamber and appointed a government of "experts." After that government predictably lost a vote of confidence, he kept it in power for five months—long after early parliamentary elections were held in October 2013. It was only after a group of senators threatened to lodge a complaint with the Constitutional Court that Zeman finally named a new government based on the election results.
Babiš's first government, too, has essentially ignored Parliament. Both Zeman and Babiš reject the opposition's argument that a caretaker government which has failed a vote of confidence should limit itself solely to making the most basic decisions and maintaining the day-today functioning of the state. Instead, they insist on this body's right to act, in essence, as a full-fledged government.
Empowered by Zeman's support, Babiš launched purges in the ministries, with his ministers firing high-level state servants and deputy ministers despite the protections these officials enjoyed under the civil service law. He also reconstructed the boards of state-controlled companies and attempted to fire the head of the General Inspection of Security Forces—an institution with the power to put pressure on the police officers who are in charge of investigating Babiš for possible fraud involving EU funds.
At the same time, Babiš worked on building an informal alliance with the Communists and the SPD by allowing them to claim a number of important positions. The heads of both parties (Vojtěch Filip and Tomio Okamura, respectively) have been elected deputy speakers of the Chamber of Deputies. A deputy from Okamura's movement was elected as chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing the security forces, and a Communist deputy as head of a subcommittee on free speech and the media. Another Communist deputy, Zdeněk Ondráček, was elected to head the parliamentary committee that supervises the General Inspection of Security Forces. This elevation provoked public outrage in light of Ondráček's past: In early 1989, as protests gathered steam in the months leading up to the downfall of Czechoslovakia's communist regime, he was a member of a police unit that beat demonstrators in Prague. When major protests erupted over the appointment, Babiš orchestrated Ondráček's recall.
Yet although both Zeman and Babiš would prefer an ANO minority government, Babiš has tried to avoid a situation in which his government [End Page 70] would have to rely on the support of the two extremist parties. Instead, by granting these parties influential positions, Babiš was clearly attempting to pressure the democratic parties into negotiations. His reluctance to rely solely on the Communists and the SPD stems mainly from concerns that this could adversely influence his position vis-à-vis the EU. Babiš not only needs EU subsidies for the country to succeed economically, but also personally cannot afford a rift with Brussels: His firms do business in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and other EU countries as well as in the Czech Republic.
In his electoral campaign Babiš occasionally used strong anti-EU rhetoric, building an image of himself as a defender of Czech national interests—especially by challenging EU migration policies. Immediately after his victory, however, he began changing his tune and trying to portray himself as a pro-European politician. This has led to a significant disagreement between Babiš and both extremist parties over a proposed new law on referendums: While the Communists and the SPD have advocated a broad law that would make it possible for Czechs to vote on leaving the European Union and NATO, Babiš has rejected this proposal and favors a softer version authorizing referendums only on issues of lesser importance.
Two recent symbolic gestures have underlined Babiš's pro-Western stances. In late March 2018, the Czech Republic extradited suspected Russian hacker Yevgeny Nikulin to the United States rather than to Russia, although both countries were seeking Nikulin's extradition; Babiš had advocated honoring the U.S. extradition request. Around the same time, Babiš authorized the expulsion of three Russian diplomats from Prague in a gesture of solidarity with Great Britain after a Russian exspy was poisoned on British territory. Both these actions put Babiš on a collision course with President Zeman, who campaigned for Nikulin to be extradited to Russia and was opposed to expelling Russian diplomats.
Toward Illiberal Democracy?
Babiš's wavering on the EU is indicative of broader patterns in—and constraints upon—his approach to governing. Despite Zeman's and Babiš's attempts to circumvent some constitutional procedures in forming a government, the first Babiš government has not attempted changes that would undermine the rule of law and the liberal-democratic system in the way that has been seen in Hungary and Poland. There are several reasons for this.
Above all, Babiš is not an ideologue like Jarosław Kaczyñski, leader of Poland's Law and Justice party, or a ruthless power player like Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán. Rather, he is a pragmatic businessman whose idea of effective governing is to run the country like a company. This idea, of course, clashes in its own way with the norms of parliamentary democracy, [End Page 71] and Babiš rarely misses an opportunity to stress that he does not trust traditional politics. In his 2017 book What I Dream of When I Happen to Sleep, he advocated reducing the number of deputies in the lower chamber by half, abolishing the Senate, and other measures that make it clear that he views parliamentary democracy, with its checks and balances, as somewhat cumbersome. He advocates a managerial approach to politics, with ministers being experts rather than career politicians.
Babiš's pragmatism also means that he has proven very flexible, changing his views repeatedly in order to keep the advantage. The "antipolitical" slogans with which he entered politics have faded to some extent, as he can hardly still claim—after five years as a party leader, much of that time spent in high office—that he is not a politician. He has also been flexible in terms of ideological bent. In 2013, he successfully sought support from center-right voters, portraying himself as a leader who basically shared their views, but stood apart from the traditional center-right parties in his desire to fight corruption and bring a new efficiency to government.
In the past two years, however, he has changed his rhetoric significantly, targeting left-leaning voters. Having served as minister of finance in the previous government (led by the Social Democrats), he succeeded in portraying himself as responsible for the country's economic growth and even in taking credit for new social programs actually initiated by the Social Democrats. His increasingly nationalistic rhetoric and promises to fight migration made him especially popular with older people, who are apprehensive about mass migration and other challenges posed by globalization.
While this ideological malleability might make Babiš appear to be a typical populist, the Czech prime minister differs notably from his populist neighbors in that there are clearly limits to what he is willing to do. Many of these have to do with the international context. In comparison with Kaczyñski and Orbán, Babiš seems to be much more sensitive to how he is viewed abroad, especially in Europe. As we have noted, a worsening of the Czech Republic's international image could threaten his commercial interests, including subsidies his firms receive from the EU.
Yet the difference between the Czech government and its Polish and Hungarian counterparts reflects more than just Babiš's personal proclivities: The Czech Republic has a stronger system of checks and balances that is an impediment to any quick slide toward illiberal democracy. The 81 members of the Czech Senate are elected in singlemandate districts on the basis of a runoff system (with a second round held if no candidate receives over 50 percent in the first vote). This disadvantages extremist parties, since supporters of whichever mainstream contenders do not make it into the second round usually band together behind those that do in order to defeat populist and extremist candidates. As a result, the Senate currently differs considerably in its composition from Parliament's lower chamber: The traditional parties that are now in the minority in the Chamber still hold a majority [End Page 72] of seats in the upper house. And this body holds a veto—which the Chamber cannot override—over any changes to either the Czech Republic's constitution or its electoral laws (a category that includes any new referendum bills), meaning that any attempts to introduce such changes to the advantage of the largest party, as we saw for example in Hungary, will be blocked.
The Czech Constitutional Court, too, is still an independent and formidable institution. True, the president nominates new constitutional judges, but they must then be vetted by the Senate. Institutional checks and balances also stand in the way of Babiš's "dream" of abolishing the Senate, since any constitutional amendment to this effect would have to be approved by the Senate itself.
Should Zeman and Babiš want to subvert liberal-democratic and rule-of-law principles, they will have to get around the Czech constitutional system. While they have managed this to some extent by empowering a caretaker government to a degree that might be interpreted as stretching the constitution, they would have to become much more inventive to press their offensive further. Babiš could, for instance, conceivably use the majority that ANO has in the Chamber together with the Communists and the SPD to curtail the independence of public television and radio. In this as in other areas, however, he cannot go too far if he wants to avoid criticism from the EU.
How far Babiš and Zeman can go will also depend on civil society. Babiš, in particular, seems to be sensitive to public protests. When tens of thousands of people demonstrated against Ondráček's committee appointment, Babiš quickly backed down. When thousands of people took to the streets over attacks on public media in Zeman's inauguration speech, Babiš felt it necessary to assure the public that he will not try to limit the independence of public television. And in the face of student demonstrations across the country, during which the participants demanded that Zeman and Babiš respect the constitution, the latter tried to persuade citizens that he does not want to overstep constitutional boundaries.
Babiš undoubtedly follows closely developments in his native Slovakia, where large-scale protests in February and March 2018 brought down the government of Robert Fico after the murder of a prominent investigative journalist and his girlfriend. As someone who aspires to run the country like a well-managed family firm, with ANO supposedly prepared to meet the expectations of every citizen, Babiš clearly sees public protests as something that could thwart his vision.
How the Czechs Got Here
Although the Czech Republic has not experienced the kind of attacks on liberal democracy that we have seen in Hungary and Poland, the Czech political system is clearly not in good shape. The party system [End Page 73] that formed the backbone of Czech politics for more than two decades has all but collapsed, and the traditional parties are unlikely to make a comeback any time soon. Any serious challenge to Babiš and to other populist movements will probably have to come from new political groupings and from civil society.
Some theoreticians speak today of the end of the First Czech Republic, alluding to the collapse of the Czechoslovak First Republic after the September 1938 Munich Conference. Yet this parallel can be misleading. Czechoslovakia in 1938 was the last island of democracy in Central Europe, abandoned by its Western allies. The fascist forces that gained the upper hand between Munich and the full Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 had strong backing in neighboring countries, whereas democracy had many enemies. Today, the international context is very different.
Although the Czech Republic is viewed as a Euroskeptic country, most politicians, including Babiš, realize how much the country depends on the EU. More than 80 percent of Czech exports go to EU countries, fueling the Czech Republic's current economic boom. The Czech Republic has joined the other Visegrád countries (Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) in formulating combative political stances on the particular issue of migration, but Czech politicians know they cannot go too far.
Being enmeshed in a web of international commitments, however, is one of the few remaining barriers preventing the Czech Republic from abandoning liberal democracy. The country's liberal-democratic system suffers from a number of weaknesses that date back to the fall of communism.
After 1989, leading politicians rarely stressed that liberal democracy requires both regular elections with stable political parties and a strong constitutionalism that protects the independence of key institutions against majoritarian political pressures. Václav Klaus, prime minister from 1992 to 1997, promoted a rather limited view of democracy, in which people give power to the politicians in elections and then leave the governing to them. Klaus was an enemy of civil society, clashing repeatedly over this issue with then-president and civil society champion Václav Havel. He also mistrusted independent institutions, including the Constitutional Court, the judiciary in general, and public media.
All this certainly did not help ordinary Czechs to understand democracy better. Klaus also gradually became highly critical of the EU, which he portrayed in essence as a necessary evil. While Klaus believed that the Czech Republic had no alternative to EU accession, he and other politicians at [End Page 74] the time handled the entire process as an accounting operation, weighing the profits to be gained from membership against potential losses. They paid little attention to the wider context—for instance, to the political and security grounds that might have made the EU an important project after centuries of wars in Europe. Nor did he take into account the intrinsic value of following European norms of political openness.
The manner in which Czech political parties took shape further damaged the prospects for a healthy liberal democracy. Most of these parties were created quickly "from above" after the Velvet Revolution by small groups of emerging elites. Not having grown out of civil society, they were relatively weak. Even today, the largest parties have around 20,000 members. The currently governing ANO boasts only some 3,000.
During the transition from communism, a number of these small and institutionally weak parties became responsible for privatizing the entire state-controlled economy, a process heavily affected by corruption. The parties then in power helped to create formidable new private economic actors; yet in the process, the parties themselves became "privatized," falling under the sway of these new actors. The public increasingly saw all major parties mainly as agents for nontransparent, behind-the-scenes economic interests, and for many years corruption was viewed as the country's number-one problem.
This was the system that Babiš in the end conquered with such ease. He was able to do so due to another weakness of traditional parties: their inability to narrate the story of the country's political and economic transformation in all its complexity. Had they been able to do this, it would have been easy to show that Babiš was not the outsider he claimed to be: After all, he could not have become the country's second-richest man without taking advantage of the very same corrupt system that his campaigns denounced.
Liberal democracy also faces a generational problem in the Czech Republic. The majority of older people, who spent large parts of their lives under communism, accepted the new system at first. But many had far higher expectations than this new system could meet—for example, that living standards in the Czech Republic would quickly catch up with those in the West. Many accepted the language and "rituals" of the democratic system without really embracing it or understanding its complexities. While most people were initially willing to make sacrifices and accept some risks following decades of communist stagnation, the willingness of a large part of this generation to give the new system a chance subsided once the first ten years had passed.
The lingering influence of communist-era mentalities on the older generation became apparent during the 2008 global financial crisis. While many people had been willing to live with systemic corruption in light of annual GDP growth that exceeded 6 percent in the years leading up to the crash, their tolerance went down sharply after the crisis [End Page 75] erupted. Moreover, many citizens who grew up under communism reacted by criticizing the problems that market economies and liberal democracies create. Trust in liberal democracy rebounded somewhat after the Czech Republic overcame the economic crisis. When Europe's migration crisis erupted in 2015, however, the mental stereotypes that many older people had inherited from the communist era resurfaced. Demand for strongarm rule and state protection increased markedly.
Populism East and West
One could argue, of course, that many of the trends we see in the Visegrád countries, including the Czech Republic, are present in the West as well. In some Western countries, too, a generational divide has helped to shape how people react to major challenges posed by globalization, such as the movement of traditional industries to cheaper destinations; the decreasing importance of the nation-state; the emergence of new identity issues; the dilemmas caused by large-scale migration; or the unease surrounding globally interconnected financial markets and communication systems. Older, less educated voters living in smaller towns and the countryside were a driving force behind the 2016 Brexit vote, and voters with the same profile have supported the populist parties of Central Europe. One factor behind this pattern may be the confusion and anxiety caused by today's globalized world among people who spent their younger years in relatively stable welfare-state societies and in the black-and-white, and therefore understandable, world of the Cold War.
Yet we can also see some major differences between West and East European countries. In the 2017 German parliamentary elections, voting patterns in what was once East Germany differed notably from those in the former West Germany: A significantly higher percentage of voters in the east supported the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), reflecting much greater anxiety about the migration crisis. In this respect, East German voters displayed the same patterns of political behavior evident in the Visegrád countries.
This suggests that some basic democratic values have not been as deeply internalized in former communist countries as in the West, and that the past still plays an important role. Populist politicians in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the former Eastern Bloc portray some of these distinct postcommunist political patterns as manifestations of "common sense," which the "decadent" and weak West—with its fondness for multiculturalism and minority rights—has supposedly lost. They find eager audiences for this message.
Babiš and Zeman have fed and exploited the widespread feeling among large parts of the population that Czechs, just like other East Europeans, [End Page 76] are being looked down on and preached to by the West, which should instead be listening. Unlike the politicians of the early 1990s, they do not portray the totalitarian past as something of which Czechs should be ashamed. Instead, they assure their electorates that the Czech Republic derives an advantage from not having participated in some of the cultural and social developments the West experienced during the Cold War. As a result, they argue, the country does not have large migrant ghettoes and still approaches concepts such as minority rights and multiculturalism with a degree of "sanity."
The most striking feature of both recent elections in the Czech Republic, however, was the willingness of politicians to use fear and anxiety to mobilize voters. Electoral campaigns centered on depictions of threats, most often mass migration and terrorism, which the Czechs could face if responsible politicians did not protect them. The fact that these threats were mostly virtual did not seem to diminish their political effectiveness.
Such political strategies worked much better with older voters than among younger ones. The presidential election in particular showed how deeply the country is divided between the younger generation, more educated and open to the outside world, and the older "postcommunist" generation. Zeman, relying heavily on the support of the "postcommunist" camp, won by only approximately 150,000 votes—far fewer than the nearly half a million votes that made up his margin of victory in 2013. The closing of this gap points to demographic and cultural changes that offer some reason for optimism. Younger and more educated people not only vote differently than the "postcommunist" generation, but also are much more active in civil society. Younger Czechs have led the recent protests, whether these have been against possible misuses of power, attacks on the public media, or the elevation of politicians with problematic pasts. And some of the defeated presidential candidates, such as Fischer or Hilšser, have the potential to become leaders of this segment of society.
So perhaps there is still some hope for liberal democracy in the Czech Republic, even if the current political situation may seem bleak. With populists holding the two highest offices in the land, we can expect at least some minor attempts to twist the rules of the democratic game. Yet there seems to be a sizeable and growing part of Czech society, consisting especially of younger urban-dwellers, with a different vision of the country's future. [End Page 77]
Jiri Pehe is director of New York University in Prague and a political commentator. He formerly served as political advisor to Czech president Václav Havel and as director of Central European Research at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.