Another European country embraces populism

The Czech Republic has joined a growing list of countries — from Germany to Austria – where the traditional Left is losing to conservative populism. This weekend’s election gave anti–European Union billionaire Andrej Babis’s ANO (“Yes” in Czech) party 30 percent of the vote, a 19-point lead over the next largest party, the conservative Civic Democrats. Babis will almost certainly become prime minister in coalition with smaller parties.

Babis has been called “the Czech Donald Trump,” and there are superficial similarities. A tycoon, he used his campaign to rail against corrupt elites and political correctness. Two weeks before the vote, it looked as if his campaign would go off track after he was formally charged with fraud over a $2.4 million European Union subsidy to one of his companies. Babis said that the charges were politically motivated, and voters largely ignored them.

The Czech elections also brought two other anti-establishment parties into parliament. Tomio Okamura, who is of Czech-Japanese origin, campaigned against migrants and Muslim influences and won 11 percent of the vote. The Pirate party, a group that backs government transparency and Internet freedom, won over 10 percent. All of this ferment in the nation of 10.6 million is remarkable because the Czech Republic is outwardly better off than its neighbors: It has the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, growing wages, and relatively little immigration.

The biggest losers in the election were the Communist party, which fell to just 7 percent of the vote, and the ruling Social Democrats, who finished in sixth place with only 7 percent. In the last election, in 2013, it had won 21 percent.

“This is an earthquake. It’s a total revolt against the established parties and the mainstream,” Milan Nic, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told the Financial Times. “Since the 1990s I can’t recall elections that changed the political landscape so much.”

The collapse of the Social Democrats follows a trend of left-wing parties losing touch with their working-class base as they become dominated by identity politics and government-employee unions. Alexandr Mitrofanov, a journalist for the Czech daily Pravo, told Politico that the Social Democrats used to appeal those who who “just wanted to have their jobs, their beer, their pork and cabbage, to raise their children and somehow to live.” Now those voters are largely voting for populist parties, with the two clearly left-wing parties together appealing to only one out of seven voters.

The rise of populist parties in the Czech Republic will probably make more obvious the East–West division in the EU. Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic will be governed by parties that oppose the EU’s decision to require each member nation to accept a certain number of migrants. Miklos Zeman, the Czech president, said last week that the EU’s requirement on migrant quotas is illegitimate: “If worse comes to worse, then it would be better to forego EU subsidies than open the door to migrants.”

The immigration issue has become a sore spot for Czechs who worry that the turmoil over migrants in neighboring countries will reach them. A poll conducted in May 2016 by the CVVM institute found that 61 percent of Czechs oppose accepting additional refugees, while nearly three in four said migrants pose as much of a threat to national security as does ISIS.

The fact that Czech voters were so disillusioned with their government that they crushed the establishment parties despite the country’s strong economy should be a wake-up call. If traditional politicians ignore voter concerns on issues ranging from immigration to corruption and cronyism, the voters will make their frustration felt.

Henry Olsen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., writes, in an essay titled “The Elites Missed Populism’s Rise (but Shouldn’t Have Done)”:

People seek radical political change only when they lose hope that they can live comfortable and dignified lives of their own choosing. If populisms of left and right are truly radical, as many fear them to be, then they must result from a dramatic loss of hope and belief among many whom we call our fellow citizens.

Elites must learn that the way to curb what they view as dangerous populist parties is not merely to attack them when they engage in xenophobia and scapegoating, but to address the legitimate concern of voters who are driven to such parties.

by John Fund

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