PRAGUE, Czech Republic – As the dust settles and clears following the recent Czech election, nobody looks especially cheerful. This is part and parcel of the normal Czech attitude to life. The country is pretty good, it’s culture satisfying and beer cheap, but corruption is an acknowledged issue, and there are complaints about the food quality and relatively low wages by European standards. Still, people don’t walk around with big smiles and don’t shout their political affiliation from the roofs.
Looking at the newspapers it could be tempting to look at the recent election gloomily. Indeed, ’Is the Czech Republic Turning On the West?’ by Jochen Bittner in the New York Times is keen to fit the Czech election into the narrative of Europe veering to the far-right and anti-establishment figures taking hold around the world. Though the ascendant far-right is a problem in Europe, the Czech Republic is neither distinct in this category nor especially pronounced. The far-right AFD got more of the vote (12.6%) in Germany than the far right SPD got (10.6%) in the Czech Republic. Furthermore, there is a real problem in how newspapers are reinforcing a broken narrative – that of the anti-establishment.
It happened in America with Donald Trump. He framed himself as somebody different and the news ran with that angle. Where was the criticism about the billionaire schmoozer sucking up to all kinds of political power? That gets hand-waved as “Just business”. He got painted as anti-establishment despite the fact that he’d made fat stacks from that very system. Where is his motivation to change it? A true anti-establishment candidate would have fewer riches and less grease on their palms.
This is a problem with Bittner’s take. He tells the same story about Andrej Babis (last name pronounced Babish), the winner of the Czech elections, framing him as an anti-establishment underdog. How Bittner accomplished this feat while noting that he’s a billionaire and the former finance minister is anybody’s guess. In truth, Babis is as establishment as Emmanuel Macron. He’s as connected to the political elite as anybody. Just because the guy under investigation for corruption says he is against corruption, doesn’t mean you should agree with him.
In fact, journalists more than anybody should be prepared to speak truth to power and call out politicians when they attack the status quo while embodying it.
Too many news sources have gone with this angle. The Guardian and The Independent have also fallen for this narrative. It is an extremely narrow read of the situation. The Financial Times is much more measured.
In addition, Bittner is extremely uncharitable towards the Czech people, most of whom didn’t vote for Babiš or Tomio Okamura of the SDP. Bittner is prone in his NYT piece to suggest the election results are some failing in the Czech electorate. He makes out that they are somehow unequipped for democracy and have illiberal minds. It’s a particularly offensive mischaracterisation of the Czech people, a people for whom freedom is so important. If the Czech seem not as eager to grasp further EU integration as others it probably has something to do with their history under Communism. The Czechs have fought vigorously for their democracy and independence and are hesitant to give it away quickly.
As it stands, I can only comment so far on this subject. My Czech skills are limited to finding simple objects and basic conversation. This being acknowledged, I can see a narrative and can smell when it’s wrong. It’s evident that even newspapers that are normally very good are pushing a narrative of right-wing and anti-establishment victory, probably owing to the current US situation. More people should counteract this because it’s spreading mistruths and making right wing dominance seem an inevitability. It is not an inevitability and people need to rise up and create a non-horrifying political party that can win votes.