He isn’t the country’s most important politician. In the Czech Republic, as in many European countries, the prime minister is far more powerful than the president. Nevertheless, the Czech president represents his country abroad, speaks on its behalf and generally helps set the tone and tenor of public debate, much like the American president does in the United States. And without question, the reelection of Milos Zeman — who is vulgar and sexist (not to mention aggressively pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, anti-European and anti-NATO) and has been accused of public drunkenness — will set the tone and tenor of public life in the Czech Republic.
In this role, he will certainly reinforce the stereotype of central Europe as “different” from the rest of Europe. Poland and Hungary, both now run by anti-European politicians bent on controlling the judiciary and the media, are already discounted by many in Europe and considered to be on their way out of the democratic camp; now the Czechs will join them.
The election of Zeman the first time around could be explained away as a fluke. His reelection, although very narrow — he defeated a political novice by a mere 175,000 votes — cannot be so easily wished away.
But comforting though it may be for those in other Western capitals to dismiss Zeman as some kind of post-communist problem, his truly vile election campaign both echoes the politics of many older democracies and may be a harbinger of the future for others. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Czech political and media culture are heavily influenced by popular (and anonymous) websites that pump out a constant stream of pro-Russian, anti-NATO propaganda, promoting fear and hatred of Muslim immigrants and resentment of an alleged “elite” that is far weaker than the corrupt business class and Russian entities who supported the president’s campaign. But if that sounds like a problem of an immature democracy, think about this: Precisely that same sentence, with those same words, could have been written about the Trump campaign.
Indeed, the further similarities are eerie. In the second round of the election, Zeman’s social media operation began smearing his opponent, Jiri Drahos, a neophyte who ran a campaign arguing for decency and civilized debate, as a pedophile. Disgusting? Absurd? Only in the primitive East? Think back to the final weeks of the U.S. election campaign and remember “Pizzagate,” the bizarre conspiracy theory that alleged the existence of a pedophile ring, run by Hillary Clinton, in the nonexistent basement of a Washington restaurant. Hundreds of thousands spread the story in its first five weeks, and one of them even grabbed his gun and drove to the restaurant in order to liberate the nonexistent children from the nonexistent basement.
There is nothing especially “eastern” about the Five Star Movement either, the party that is currently leading the Italian opinion polls, made a rapid recent switch to pro-Russian policies, and whose anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have led to a huge rise in infectious diseases. Nor is there anything “eastern” about the other political leader in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, who is also perfectly capable of vulgarity and sexism (though in a smooth Italian rather than a blunter Czech version), has a bizarrely close relationship with Vladimir Putin, and no scruples about anything at all. There isn’t anything “eastern” about the Austrian Freedom Party, which is openly racist, backed by Russia, and now, as part of a government coalition, controls the Austrian foreign, interior and defense ministries.
Of course, it may be no coincidence that this particular brand of politics captured presidencies and prime ministerships in central Europe: The independent media is extremely weak in small countries where advertising markets can’t support it, and public debate is dominated by conspiratorial websites and cheap tabloids. In Germany and France, strong public and private media mean that, in general, the level of the national conversation is higher.
All of this is true. Yet consider rural America, where the independent media is extremely weak, where advertising markets can’t support it, and public debate is dominated by conspiratorial websites and cheap tabloids. So maybe there’s no need to say anything except that some of the world’s oldest democracies and some of the world’s newest democracies have more in common than you think.