Anti-Minority Sentiments in Czech Election Campaigns

Are recent high-profile cases of political scaremongering part of a wider trend?

You'd be afraid to leave the house if you believed the election campaign posters that are going up around the country. Once outside, you'd need to defend yourself against the junkies, homeless people, and against the intolerant Muslims who, some posters warn, are planning to build mosques around the country. The reality is rather different, though. There's hardly any threat at all out there, according to statistics and experts. So why do Czech politicians use anti-minority scaremongering tactics in their campaigns?

Proud majority
Not long ago, in the heated debate over election campaign slogans, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) in Most agreed that they should address the issue of "ill-fitted" inhabitants of their town, which they regarded as its biggest problem. Soon, 12 billboards appeared around the north Bohemian town, featuring local ČSSD leader Karel Novotný, who is running in Most's upcoming elections, saying, "Why should I regret being the majority nationality in my homeland? One state, one set of rules." The slogan clearly attacked the local Roma community. And a scandal was born.

After initially refusing to interfere in a local branch's internal workings, the ČSSD's national leadership was pressured into ordering their party colleagues in Most to change the posters. Last week, they covered over the "majority nationality" sentence but left the part about "one state, one set of rules."

Intolerant slogans have become increasingly prominent across the country. Politicians have been promising "zero tolerance" on all kinds of issues. In Most again, the city council's ruling party, Mostečané Mostu ("Most for Most Citizens"), has declared a "zero tolerance" approach to "ill-adapted citizens," while in Prague the party of former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman has shown little tolerance toward "junkies". And the Prague 5 branch of the ČSSD vowed to expel drug addicts and homeless people from the area. Former TV anchor Jana Bobošíková's Suverenity (Sovereignty) party promotes a ban on the construction of mosques in its election materials.

Elsewhere in the country, parties might not be using anti-minority slogans on their posters but are often promoting politicians with dubious backgrounds. The TOP 09 ballot in Ostrava-Mariánské Hory is headed by Deputy Mayor Jiří Jezerský who gained notoriety a few years ago for offering to shoot all the Roma. The TOP 09 leadership argues that a court verdict has not proven that Jezerský’s "violent plan" was a crime.

In Prague-Libuš, current Mayor Petr Mráz, of Věci veřejné (Public Affairs, VV), and Pavla Jedličková, of the ČSSD, both running in the October elections, claimed in the past that the Vietnamese community has caused a sharp rise in the crime rate, representing a "security threat for Czech society". Both of them publicly encouraged xenophobia among citizens, supporting a café owner who refused to serve Vietnamese customers, for example. In Chodov, the VV party took in a former member of the far-right Národní strana (National Party), Ladislav Paštéka, who used to march down Chodov's streets as a member of that group. The party leaders have defended Paštéka, saying he has matured and changed since then.

Where did you take all this?
If there is anything all these cases have in common, it is the fact that anti-minority-oriented campaigns are based more on impressions than on hard numbers. Trustworthy data and analyses show there is no reason to panic about security and rising crime rates in the Czech Republic.

The Most ČSSD branch's slogan -- "Why should I regret being the majority nationality in my homeland?" -- indicates that minorities represent a threat but, when asked for evidence, the politicians responsible talk vaguely about disturbances during nighttime hours and unusual behavior.

Statisticians, social workers and regional experts say there are no warning signs to justify this level of concern. "There is no such bad situation in Most," says Zdeněk Svoboda, the head of the NGO Člověk v tísni's (People in Need's) branch in nearby Bílina.

On the contrary, according to the latest statistics, the crime rate in Most has been in decline in the past few years. On a trip to Chánov, a district known for its large Roma community, things appear to be improving. Walking down the street, one can see men with tools being trained to become "house caretakers". A few meters further down the road a number of unemployed locals are renovating a former shop. Children in neat and tidy clothing return home from school, happily and loudly greeting everyone they see. In the community center, teenagers are learning how to use computers. The area around the buildings is immaculate.

"The reputation of Chánov is still much worse than the situation is today," says Martin Nebesář, the head of the Dům romské kultury (House of Roma Culture) foundation. The charity carries out re-qualification courses, organizes house renovations and operates a community center. "It is not true that big money would flow in here. The Roma here are not favored in any way. All the funds we have, we have won in competitions, and sometimes it was quite tough to win them."

Yet Chánov is no paradise, and certainly not a place where the inhabitants are given preferential treatment compared to non-Roma Czechs, as the ČSSD claimed in its election campaign. Many buildings are dilapidated, there are abandoned flats, there's no hot water, the vast majority of Chánov citizens are unemployed and many are in debt.

The idea that there's a rapidly rising crime rate in Prague-Libuš, and that the Vietnamese community is responsible for this, is similarly nonsensical, say the police. Likewise, drug-related crime rate has not worsened either, say experts. And the Muslims who intend to islamize the Czech Republic by building mosques here? Of course, no such thing is happening.

"It is not an issue whatsoever," says Stanislav Balík, a political scientist at the Masaryk University (Masarykova univerzita) in Brno. In a country with a population of 10 million, there are only two mosques, in Brno and in Prague 9, plus a few prayer rooms and study rooms, and no problems have been reported involving the country's tiny Muslim community.

Abusing the crisis situation
So why do politicians make use of anti-minority sentiments? And are they using them more than they did in the past?

The answers are somewhat complicated. It is hard to monitor the diverse and chaotic world of local elections, in which 6,000 towns elect their council representatives. First of all, campaigning is decentralized, so regional party branches are free to act as they please. Anti-minority sentiments have been used as election slogans in the past but not as blatantly and publicly as today. Four years ago, "I will resolve whatever problems you have," was the slogan used by Jiří Čunek, a controversial anti-Roma politician, who was a leading member of the Christian Democrats (KDÚ-ČSL).

Part of the explanation may be public opinion. The Most ČSSD branch doesn't have exact data about crime rates at hand, but they know very well that surveys indicate growing animosity toward the Roma community.

The mood in society has also been affected by the crisis and Czechs have been feeling particularly insecure in the past few months. According to the Center for Public Survey, Czechs trust less in the government now than they have at any time in the past 10 years. As has been shown in the past, people who are vulnerable to insecurity tend to look for someone to blame and focus on "foreign" and trouble-making elements in the society.

The question is whether the above-mentioned cases are only isolated incidents or whether they signal deeper changes in local politics. Even here, the answer isn't very clear. Cases involving controversial slogans have attracted a great deal of attention but they are the exceptions to the rule. "We should be alarmed when the entire ČSSD adopts the same populist approach as the Most and Prague 5 branches have," says Pavel Pečínka, a political scientist from Brno and editor-in-chief of Romano hangos magazine.

The most important thing is the party as such must distance itself from its local branches if necessary. "The problem is the provincial culture that dominates local politics,” says sociologist Ivan Gabal. "If the statements pass by without criticism from the central party, they become the standard. That can have serious consequences. On top of that, populism often indicates an inability to resolve real problems."

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