- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Czech voters last week expressed their desire for change. But there is one area, where they want continuity — the country’s foreign policy.

For the ninth time since our victory over the communist regime in 1989, the citizens of the Czech Republic voted in a highly anticipated Parliamentary election. The results are surprising for many, apparently even for those who are among the undisputed winners.

The victory belongs mainly to Andrej Babis and the Ano (“yes” in Czech) movement that will control 78 seats out of 200 in the Chamber of Deputies. In spite of his sweeping triumph, forming a ruling coalition might turn out to be an uphill struggle for the second-richest Czech, who is still relatively new to politics. Yet his troubles pale in comparison with those of the traditional parties that no longer dominate the political scene.

The center-right Civil Democrats, once a leading force of several coalitions, came second with 25 seats. Social Democrats lost 650,000 voters from the 1 million supporters they had only four years ago, and even Czech Communists, this time seen as not revolutionary enough, were marginalized to half of their usual support. Nevertheless, the result, translated into real policy, is far less dramatic than the headlines. Czechs, who returned to Europe after the 1989 revolution, became full-fledged Europeans even more quickly than many expected.

The West is currently haunted by the specter of populist movements replacing established political parties. Czechs have become westernized and have caught the very same disease as Germans and French. Although many of us, both in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, might still feel puzzled by this phenomenon, we should not lose our ability to analyze things free from emotional and ideological bias.

From such a standpoint, we can easily distinguish between radical populism and genuine desire for change: The former taps into the darkest feelings of desperate voters and offers solutions as radical as leaving NATO or drastically reducing some constitutional rights. The latter clearly reflects the widespread frustration with the political establishment living in an ivory tower in complete isolation from the real life. While radical populism is rightly feared, the new political subjects running on the promise of change are more and more accepted as a new factor that can set in motion the musty political institutions, carry through vital reforms and, in that way, even restore the credibility of the political system. That is something that applies to the winner of the Czech elections.

Czech voters expressed the same desire for changes as the voters in other European countries, who have recently cast their votes either for brand-new political movements, or gave the power to new faces within the traditional parties. The Czechs who voted for Ano or the Pirate Party (which finished third with 22 seats) equally expressed their demand for change, mainly in economic policies and other domestic issues. And similarly to their European peers, there is one area, where Czechs expressed little desire for dramatic change — foreign policy. The critical importance of membership in NATO and irreplaceability of the EU has been stressed by most of the parties that will have their representatives in the new Parliament.

Here movements like Ano or the Pirates comfortably agree with the established democratic parties. Ano was, in fact, among the most vocal ones in expressing these feelings. While victorious Andrej Babis mentioned few specifics in his emotional speech on the day of his electoral victory, he repeatedly stated the importance of proactive and constructive Czech membership in the EU and stressed the significance of the NATO membership for the security of the Czech Republic. Even before the elections, Mr. Babis made a clear commitment to increase defense spending.

Few expect that forming the new government is going to be an easy process, and the outcome is far from clear. But whoever will occupy the Czech government premises in the neo-baroque palace on the bank of Vltava River in Prague, around 200 miles northwest of Vienna, the country can hardly change its foreign policy course. This course is dictated not only by geography, history, economy and culture, but also by the will of the voters in the recent election.

• Hynek Kmonicek is ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States.


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