To many in the west, successful illiberal politicians such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen may be a new phenomenon, but for those who follow the post-communist states of Eastern Europe, such figures have long been in the mainstream. Since coming to power in recent years, Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice Party have undermined democratic norms and placed unprecedented strains on EU institutions. How do we understand and confront post-communist countries’ trends towards authoritarianism, isolationism and protectionism? One of the best points of reference is their neighbour and ally, the Czech Republic.
Since the 2015 migrant crisis, the far right in Europe has been on a steady rise. Elections this year saw millions of Europeans vote for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and the AfD party in Germany. Although the far right did not overtake national politics in any of these countries, its presence and voice are rising. On 20 October, the Czechs will turn out to vote in a legislative election for the new Chamber of Deputies—the upper, more powerful house of Prague’s Parliament.
The Visegrád group: the beginning of Europe’s illiberal wave
Although a small nation of 10 million, the Czech Republic occupies a key role in European affairs. Since 1991, alongside Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, it has been a member of the ‘Visegrád Group,’ or ‘V4’ – a largely informal alliance that has traditionally dealt with cultural exchanges.
However, the role of the V4 alliance shifted in late 2015 when, at the height of the European migrant crisis, under Prague’s leadership these countries united to veto Brussels’ scheme for a quota on the resettlement of refugees. Each Visegrád country can influence the foreign policy of the other three, and thus one’s domestic politics can potentially send shockwaves across Europe. V4 states are a potential Trojan Horse for bringing down liberal European institutions from within.
Europe’s illiberal wave was pioneered by Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán after his party Fidesz came to power in 2010. These tendencies were made visible during Orbán’s first term as president of Hungary when he limited the Hungarian constitutional court’s powers and introduced a new constitution. He also secured a second term by changing the Hungarian electoral system in 2014. Orbán’s policies were echoed amongst other Visegrád members.
Last July, the European Commission chastened the government of Poland, led by far-right ‘Law and Justice’ (PiS). Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński wants to fundamentally change the Polish state by subordinating judges to parliament, weakening the local government, ‘re-Polonising’ local media owned by German investors, and reinventing the school system. As a result, Poland has tumbled down independent global indices of political and press freedom.
Slovakia, on the other hand, is currently led by centre-left PM Robert Fico, but key regions of the country are controlled by far-right ‘People’s Party: Our Slovakia.’ Since 2015, the party takes its name from its leader, Marian Kotleba, who sports neo-Nazi regalia and has professed admiration for Jozef Tiso, wartime leader of Germany-allied Slovakia.
The Czech Republic and the far-right
The Czechs’ answer to these far-right figures is Czech-Japanese politician and businessman Tomio Okamura, leader of the party ‘Freedom and Direct Democracy’ (SPD), an anti-immigration and big government movement. Okamura has professed his wishes to slow the flow of Muslim migrants and calls for ‘direct democracy,’ which he believes to be “a panacea for all political ills”. In his 2013 book The Art of Direct Democracy, Okamura called for greater local, municipal referenda, patterned on the Swiss model. In true populist fashion, he always speaks in terms of ‘us’ and ‘we,’ never ‘I’—thus implying that his point of view reflects the “silent majority.”
Okamura has appeared at events with Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, and tweeted support for Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. He sees his place within a movement sweeping through Western democracies, proclaiming at the third SPD conference “we are not just a bumper of European parties, but the true European vision!”. That said, the SPD’s anti-immigrant and anti-elite messages are not altogether popular. In six different polls for April–May 2017, the SPD has remained in 6th or 7th place, with 4.2–7.1% of the vote.
V3 + 1?
This presents a departure from its neighbours. The political scene may be bleak in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but in the Czech Republic there is far less to fear. Although foreigners (especially Muslims) may not be welcome in their country—aversion to foreigners is simply a part of the nation’s political culture—no right-wing insurgency eager to erode the rule of law, undermine free press, and withdraw the country from the EU lurks in the wings of Czech politics. A longue durée view of regional history shows why democracy in the Czech Republic is not as imperilled as in its Visegrád allies.
As early as the Imperial Habsburg Era, the country has always possessed a strong working class, forming left-leaning unions (even as early as the Imperial Habsburg era). And as one of the first countries to reject Catholic authority, under the leadership of 15th-century reformer Jan Hus, a strong religious conservative tradition has been absent for generations.
Dr. Sean Hanley, Senior Lecture in Slavonic Studies at University College, London, wrote that in contrast to Hungary and Poland, where the post–1989 right was able to draw on powerful traditions of populism, conservative nationalism and political Catholicism dating back to the nineteenth century, ‘right wing’ forces in the Czech lands were historically weak and divided. Therefore, the social forces that formed the bases of the traditional right in many European countries, such as conservative aristocratic landowners or the Catholic Church, were politically weak or absent in the Czech case.
Okamura’s SPD has thus fared poorer than one might expect partly because, in the Czech Republic’s (culturally) conservative politics, his message is not unique. The potential SPD voter base is adequately served by mainstream political parties such as the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats. Mr. Okamura cannot even fill the role of ‘drain-the-swamp’ outsider, as that space is occupied by billionaire, anti-corruption pundit Andrej Babiš, whose populist centre-right party ANO currently dominates in the polls. Okamura has been marginally successful due to his charisma, but he will suffer in the voting booth because his anti-elitist and anti-foreigner attitudes are not unique.
An encouraging future
After the UK leaves the European Union, the voice of the four Visegrád countries will become more influential. They claim that despite losing an ally [the UK], the V4 countries’ predominantly anti-federalist platform could strengthen the region’s status within the EU. Perhaps the Visegrád group will serve as a forum for exchanging illiberal ideas, but so far it appears unlikely to act as the fatal Trojan Horse in Brussels. The Czech political and cultural atmosphere will likely remain illiberal, though not to the same dramatic degree as in Poland or Hungary. The marginalised state of Mr. Okamura should be encouraging to readers who, in a world of unstable international relations and “post-truth” politics, have come to fear the worst.