Friday, September 29, 2017

Czech Idol, politics edition

With the wave of ethno-nationalism sweeping many countries, there are a lot of places where you could ask, “Who is this country’s Donald Trump?”

The Czech Republic is fortunate in having many candidates.

There’s the Czech president himself, one of the earliest people on the international scene to support Trump’s candidacy. He seems to share the US president’s deeply held belief that women are to be judged primarily on a man’s impression of her physical attributes, with attractive women being as naked as possible, and unattractive women being kept well covered. And he loves playing to Islamophobia and xenophobia. Like Trump, he sometimes seems more comfortable with Putin than with leaders of other EU countries.

We can’t count out Andrej Babiš, the man who seems likely to emerge from the October elections as prime minister. Like Trump, he only recently moved from business to politics, positioning himself as an outsider who will shake things up and clean up corruption, while quickly getting entangled in corruption of his own. Unfortunately for his candidacy as the local Trump, he seems to actually be successful in business, with no bankruptcies to his name—a nearly disqualifying omission.

The outgoing prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, can stake some small claim: in the face of his party’s declining popularity he made a last-minute play to local anti-Muslim sentiment. But other than that he’s more or less typical of the center-left Social Democratic party he belongs to, so in terms of broad policy positions he’s got none of Trump’s predilection for soaking the poor while comforting the rich. And as for his xenophobia, not only is it Johnny-come-lately, you can kinda tell his heart’s not in it.

I’m starting to think the complete package might be Tomio Okamura.
Okamura got rich in the travel business, which was a strong market after the fall of communism in 1989. Czechs were eager to see the world once it was easy for them to go places other than just the Warsaw Pact countries that had provided most of their travel opportunities. And the world was eager to see Czechoslovakia—especially Prague—once it was easy to come here.

With a gift of gab, he became a regular on television, sort of a go-to guy for comment on the travel industry. Like Babiš and Trump he then moved to politics, playing on his business success as a demonstration of his overall ability to get stuff done.

In 2012 he won a seat in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, but much less powerful than the lower house, the Assembly. That was supposed to be a springboard into the presidential elections of January, 2013, the first time the Czech president would be chosen by direct election rather than by the Assembly. But it turned out he didn’t have enough valid signatures on his candidacy petitions, so he was kicked out of the race and was stuck in a meaningless Senate seat that he’d never wanted anyway.

The next year a new party started up, called Úsvit (“Dawn”). It took its name from a book by the Czech economist Pavel Kohout, Dawn: A criticism of the political system and proposal for a new Constitution for the Czech Republic. Okamura’s PR man thought of the name and brought his boss together with a more politically experienced entrepreneur politician.

The campaign program they hoped would get them into the assembly was a call for renewing the political system, based on Kohout’s book. But then Okamura hit the road to campaign for the new party.
He would go to socially neglected localities and draw attention to the “mess of the gypsies” [the Czech word is “bordel,” which literally means “brothel” but is much more frequently used to mean a chaotic situation with nobody competent in charge], and he defended the idea that the Romany should create their own state somewhere far away, he lit into the “unadaptables” and gained points for that. His colleagues crossed out all the prepared slogans about reconstructing democracy—and on their posters they wrote, in line with their newly launched leader, a promise to “put an end to the bordel.” (Ivana Sovobodová, “The theater of Okamura”, Respekt 25 Sep – 1 Oct 2017, pp. 40-45)
So far so good for his hopes to be Miss Trump Czech Republic 2017. What about graft? Very promising there as well.

The Úsvit party fell apart in 2015 when some of its leadership realized that Okamura was siphoning off party money by having the party sign contracts with businesses run by himself and his allies. Under the Czech system, if your party meets certain standards, the government provides money to run your election campaign and general party activities. In the case of Úsvit, it was tens of millions of crowns (several million dollars).
“It dawned on us that Úsvit was a one-time project for making money” said a former vice chairman of the party, “and we’d fallen for it.”
According to Respekt, he doesn’t do planned public appearances, but shows up at existing public events, like fairs or the NATO Days celebrations, and then amplifies his presence there via social media. “He categorically refuses offers of interviews—not only with Respekt but with other media he thinks might be critical of him.”

Okamura’s new platform is the Freedom and Direct Democracy party (Svoboda a přímá demokracie – SPD), but it may have a similar underlying goal as his earlier involvement in Úsvit.
It can’t be proved that money is the point again this time, but people knowledgeable about Tomio Okamura’s circumstances have that suspicion in their memory. Okamura’s inclination toward Russia, his connection with the chairwoman of the nationalistic National Front Marine Le Pen, whom a Russian bank supported with a loan in the elections, and Okamura’s visit to the Russian embassy all are cause for headaches for politicians oriented to the West: according to them, a spineless politician can easily become a Trojan horse for Russia in Czech politics. (Respekt)
Then there’s the deligitimization of the media.
The essence of Okamura’s magic is that for voters inclined toward a protest vote or even a negativistic one, he offers something they won’t find with other parties: his own conspiratorial world. No other party does such a perfect job of serving a group that could be called readers of conspiracy web pages, and which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Okamura takes great pains to emphasize that everyone but him is lying, that the “official” media is censored … When you speak to people at his campaign tables you discover that they often live in their own universe. It’s quite common to hear that there are hundreds of thousands of migrants in Czechia and that the government and official media are hiding that from us. You can’t dissuade them from that, they simply believe it. Okamura himself doesn’t state nonsense like that, but he does come up with sentences like, “we all know that Sobotka and Babiš are sending us more illegal migrants outside the quota,” so he confirms his voters in their view of the world. He deftly encloses them in a conspiratorial bubble, inside of which he terrifies them, and at the same time he offers them deliverance. So in the end he could even draw in those who are so set against the system that up to now they haven’t been voting at all—similar to the success the AfD had in Germany. (Petr Honzejk, “Tomio Okamura, the dark horse of the elections,” Hospodářské noviny, Sep. 29, 2017)
So Okamura has Trump’s gift for graft, his affinity with Putin and ethno-nationalists within the EU, his own support among the “fake news” crowd, and his willingness to use racial resentment for political advancement.

His biggest shortcoming as a mini-Trump may be that, whereas Trump seems to have an element of sincere White supremacism, Okamura may be more strictly opportunistic.
People from that time [the beginning of Úsvit in 2013] reject the possibility that he’s simply a racist. They say he would just as passionately preach about higher welfare payments for unemployed Romany if he determined that that was just the thing the people wanted to here. He gradually began to turn on Islam and started to promise that he would outlaw the religion, in spite of the recognition of religious freedom embedded in the constitution. And the latest evergreen topic for the voters—again by the will of the mood of citizens from smaller cities afflicted with disinformation propaganda and skepticism toward the common European project—is his promise that the country will leave the EU. (Respekt)
And indeed, genuine White supremacism would be an interesting … accomplishment on the part of a man with a Japanese father (it may have occurred to you that his name wasn’t particularly Czech).

His parents originally met as pen pals after his maternal grandfather encouraged his daughter to start a correspondence with a Japanese sociology student in order to improve her English. The two married, had one son in Czechoslovakia, then moved to Japan, where Tomio and a younger brother were born. The mother returned to Prague with her children when Tomio was about four, but the parents never divorced and the family stayed in touch.

Tomio spent some of his post-high-school time in Japan, which was the key to his start in the travel business in post-communist Prague: a man bilingual in Czech and Japanese, with personal connections to both cultures, was in a unique position to serve Japanese tourists coming to the newly accessible Czech capital.

So he’s apparently not “really” a racist, which probably makes him a less perfect Doppelgänger for his American idol. But he does have one similarity that is arguably more important than all the others: against all expert expectation, he could win.

His web page has 265,000 followers, twice as many as Babiš. He’s done well in “student elections”. He’s good at the street conversation outside the pub “and successfully addresses older people who aren’t on social networks. So he manages to engage voters across the generations.”

He is the choice for those who see no alternative.
Two agile retirees are chatting on a Prague trolley. “Who are you going to vote for?” asks one. “Those who’ve stealing stuff here for 20 years, certainly not,” says the other. “So who?” “I can’t vote the Bolsheviks, I still remember that horror well enough. Not Babiš either. A factory owner who says he’s for the social state is a liar …” “Then who?!” “Well, … probably that, that … Okamura!” This conversation, which actually happened, could represent a wider phenomenon. For many dissatisfied people, obviously not just pensioners, Tomio Okamura, objectively a xenophobe, Europhobe, and a populist, could represent the only “authentic” and “unsullied” protest. There’s reason enough to think that when you have a politician who skillfully works with fear of migration and manages to present himself as the only real alternative, he’s headed higher than the six or seven percent that the public-opinion polls assign him. ("Dark horse")
I don’t have a clear enough feel for the Czech political scene to have a sense one way or another whether Okamura can really come out on top next month—I was among the many who couldn’t imagine that the original Trump would actually be president.

But he is in a way the perfect small-d democrat. Bereft of his own principles, he figures out what will play well enough to get votes and goes there. If he wins, it will be because he articulated something that enough of the people wanted, but that no other “respectable” politicians were willing to say.

The shame is that our social conditions have produced so many people willing, even eager, to hear what it is that Okamura has decided to articulate.

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