It’s done. The votes have been counted, ashes fallen, and blood is being mopped off the floors. The Czech Republic has officially elected a xenophobic, authoritarian, pro-Russian demagogue as its President. Again. Hallelujah.
Before we start getting ready for potentially another five years of Zeman’s trademark drunken reign of error, and all the wonderful possibilities his brave old world offers, there is the nagging question of how in the name of all that is unholy has he managed to get re-elected after a term of constant lies, diplomatic embarrassments, unflinching clientelism and systematic undermining of Parliamentary democracy, all the while not having being able to rise from a chair without assistance and looking like his facial features have recently been expertly rearranged with a shovel. The answer appears to be, perhaps less than shockingly, irrelevance.
Even more ado about nothing
The farcical nature of Czech politics has seldom been revealed as clearly as during the second round of these elections. The country faces an entire slew of issues like the unprecedented conflict of interest in the person of its PM, massive wage gaps, the completely out-of-control distraint system, and the economic stigma of being stuck as a provider of cheap labor for the rest of Europe. For some peculiar reason, none of this was ever mentioned over the course of the campaigns. What we got instead was a ride on a regular rollercoaster of misinformation, reaching from the heights of “I would never sign Dublin IV” (no kidding, presidents have nothing to do with that), down the gentle slopes of “he’s a member of the Illuminati” all the way to the fetid cesspools of “he’s a pedophile and spawn of Satan”.
Now, all this is fairly standard fare for this post-truth world of ours and it is not like the President has any actual power to affect any of the real issues (unless the spawn of Satan thing turns out to be true, obviously), right? It would be easy to dismiss all that as the 21st century take on that tried and tested favorite pastime of primates everywhere, flinging excrement – but it turns more serious when brought to the level of mainstream media debate, political statements and, above all, the legitimization of discourse, where the President becomes a just-a-bit-too-powerful-to-feel-comfortable agenda setter. And the agenda that was set for these elections was frankly amazing.
The campaigns of both candidates (Miloš Zeman and Jiří Drahoš) ran on the following four issues: 1) Immigration, 2) Finances, 3) Health, 4) Foreign policy. A quick reality check reveals that all of those have bugger all to do with actual political conditions in the country. The health of the candidates was obvious ground for confrontation, but it is not like the fact Zeman is a shambling zombie pushed around the place by bodyguards, or that Drahoš wears non-dioptric glasses now because he is used to wearing them, is likely to affect the political discourse in the country in any way (apart from the possibility of judicious application of embalming fluid increasing the TV appeal of even more political have-beens).
Campaign financing was, similarly, used as a beating stick by both sides, either by pointing out the less savory donors of Drahoš’s campaign or the fact that Zeman strategically failed to disclose his (shady, interconnected and Russia-and-China related, naturally) donors until the day before the elections – but then again, even if Zeman was funded by Satan himself (or worse, George Soros), it would hardly have mattered as we have already seen five years’ worth of what donating to Zeman entails, so the list would be useful only if one was really excited about who happens to be next in line for state commendations, awards and preference deals in Russia, China and various whereverstans.
Friction over fiction
Immigration and foreign policy, on the other hand, look like things Presidents should be dealing with and it is a damn good thing that they do not. Zeman’s foreign policy often went directly against that enforced by the various Foreign Ministers. The result was, more often than not, embarrassment for everyone involved. In fact, more common ground was found between the President and representatives of certain companies interested in Chinese and Russian money, who Zeman obligingly ferried to the countries of their interest by the planeful and for whom the President’s cronies even used the state’s authority to secure multi-million deals, even if they happened to be, say, a construction company that has no offices, no profits and a grand total of two employees unlikely to be able to recognize the business end of a pickaxe.
What Zeman’s so-called trade missions have brought is an increased interest in our country from Russia and China. This was manifest in a variety of entertaining ways, ranging from the Chinese offer to connect the country to the Black Sea by means of a river channel, laughed at by economists and ecologists alike, to suggestions of Russians expanding Czech nuclear power plants (screw the government’s plans for a project competition), to Very Important Investors touring local factories in order to make a valiant effort at smuggling samples out of the building in their expensive suit pockets. Oops. Whether the point of a President’s official visits to other countries is to facilitate deals for his shady buddies is a question everyone has to provide their own answer to – sadly, we already know Zeman’s.
And then there is the biggest non-issue of all: illegal immigration. The Czech Republic is extremely Islamophobic while having roughly 0.2% Muslims among its populace. Even the logical jump from immigration to Islam is fallacious since these are quite different topics – but the Czech public discourse makes no difference between them: immigration means Islam means terrorism (means burqas means rape means eating babies). This discourse has long been hailed, preached and legitimized by politicians who just could not resist banking on the political capital offered by having a such a public enemy around. And Zeman utilized it to the max. Naturally the campaign would be about immigration – he has worked long and hard on breathing a semblance of life into this construct. And it repaid him in spades – so who cares if racism becomes commonplace and thousands of people will suffer because of bad PR? There’s votes in hate.
The biggest con of all
What comes next? Zeman is likely to retreat from the public eye for a couple of weeks while his crack team of personal necromancers try to come up with a way to make his appendages move in ways sufficient for signing terribly important pieces of paper required to finalize the official screwing of the state. Meanwhile, the Prague Castle remains occupied by his cronies, happily busying themselves with turning the state into their personal moneymaker while the “ordinary people”, whom Zeman masterfully managed to con into believing he is a member of as opposed to the lifelong fixture of establishment that he is, merrily go about their business knowing there is a vengeful, alcoholic, petty old man presiding over their safety from evil immigrants by Presidential virtue of doing absolutely nothing. Obviously enough, Zeman is a symptom, not the cause of the problem, but he does his damned best to keep steering things toward an even more conflicted, even more misguided society. Getting rid of him wouldn’t have solved anything in itself, but it was a necessary step in preventing things from getting worse.
There are possibilities in the future: Zeman’s concentrated efforts at usurping as many executive powers as he can get away with, and flaunting the law, could arouse the suspicion of the current (-ly wanted by the police) PM Andrej Babiš, who has been doing much the same thing, and while they do appear to be working together for now, it seems rather unlikely that two men hellbent on disemboweling democracy in favor of an authoritarian regime revolving around their magnificent selves will not come to blows sooner or later.
For now, though? My money’s on simply hoping that the bastard dies.
Thank you for using Czechia in the title but please start using Czechia in the text too. It makes sense. I am sure you would use short names for other countries too. I know that old habits die hard but there is no reason not to use Czechia. It is just a matter of getting used to it.