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Migration topic makes malleable comeback in high strung Czech election

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Prague, Czech Republic – While the topic of migration isn’t the main issue ahead of the Czech parliamentary elections, it remains a potent instrument to score political points, especially in the hands of incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

“First of all, we are going to have here the migrants they want and we see what’s happening in Western Europe.” Babis said back in March about a possible victory of the Pirate opposition party in the upcoming elections on October 8-9.

Calling them dangerous “extreme leftists”, he presented himself as an eternal opponent to migration, later claiming that the Pirates wanted to “tax superfluous surfaces in apartments and then settle someone in, ideally some migrant.” Last week, he stepped up his anti-migrant rhetoric during a visit to Hungary, where he also visited the border fence with counterpart Viktor Orban.

An anti-migration consensus

In the spring, following the government’s catastrophic management of the pandemic which saw Czechia rank among the worst in the world in terms of deaths and infections per capita, the Pirates allied with the Mayors and Independent (STAN) party overtook the Prime Minister’s ANO party in the polls.

Babis’s incendiary claims on migration had one purpose: reverse that trend. Although PM Babis was sued by the Pirates, the disinformation campaign – boosted by far-right and other networks – appeared to reach its goal, with the Pirate/STAN coalition dropping from a high of 27% to around 20% today.

As elsewhere in Europe, the issue of migration became a hot topic in the Czech Republic during the refugee crisis in 2015-2016. Supporters and opponents of a welcoming policy faced off – and even clashed – in Czech streets. Following Islamist terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, public opinion and politicians moved towards a consensus against refugees, even if the government led by the Social-Democrats (today even unsure to reach the 5% threshold) did not openly reject the EU’s refugee relocation plans.

As all parties adopted a rather negative stance towards refugees and non-European migration, and as EU borders became more tightly sealed, the debate somewhat quieted down before the 2017 elections. Still, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) made it its top issue and campaigned with the slogan “No to Islam, no to terrorists”, clenching the fourth position with over 10% of the vote.

Over the last four years, the political class has shown a remarkable unity on the topic, with Prime Minister Babis clearly stating his policy in August 2018: “I don’t want to welcome a single migrant”. Opposition parties have seldom dared challenge the Prime Minister, only pushing for a small number of unaccompanied under-aged refugees to be welcomed in 2019, unsuccessfully.

The migrants are back

With the elections approaching, this consensus remains untouched: virtually all parties state in their programmes that their priority is to stop illegal migration and reject any EU relocation plans.

Only small nuances reveal their slightly different positions, from the hard lines of the far-right SPD refusing any asylum claims from illegal migrants and ANO promising swift deportations, to the more moderate approaches of the two opposition coalitions, who insist on the need for EU-wide solutions and, in the case of Pirate/STAN, emphasise the need to tackle migration’s root causes and to guarantee the migrants’ safety and human rights.

Despite this apparent consensus, migration has once again crept back into public debate, mostly as a tool used by Andrej Babis and the far-right to gain votes at the expenses of the more liberal opposition.

Last spring, Babis used it to scuttle the Pirate ship sailing past him by presenting his opponents as proponents of mass migration. Lately, he has also been trying to weaponise non-European migration to divide the SPOLU (Together) coalition built by three centre-right and right-wing opposition parties. In an electoral clip recently released, he pointed out the differences in the parties’ programmes concerning migration, suggesting that voting for the coalition offered no certainty to voters as to what to expect on this topic.

The crisis in Afghanistan also brought back migrants in the spotlight, as the Czech government came under pressure to help Afghans who had collaborated with the Czech army during its military mission and were threatened by the new Taliban regime. The government ended up evacuating around 170 Afghans to the Czech Republic in August, rejecting any suggestion that it would do more.

A blessing for the far-right SPD, who could once again present itself as the most hardline party on the issue, arguing that not a single Afghan refugee should be accepted. The influx of migrants coming through Belarus into Poland and the Baltic states, on the other part, is not widely covered by Czech media and isn’t truly being addressed during the campaign.

While the opposition has tried to brush off Babis’ rhetoric as mere fearmongering, they have paradoxically helped the incumbent keep the issue high on the agenda. Instead of rejecting migration as a non-existent issue and putting forward their own topics, they clumsily tried to respond to the Prime Minister’s attacks, even occasionally jumping on the anti-migration bandwagon.

Thus, Pirate party leader Ivan Bartos recently claimed in an interview to Rádio Impuls that he “now has a problem with Muslim Europe“, talking about “no-go zones“ in France and Germany. Not only did his words trigger a backlash by parts of his supporters, they’re also unlikely to sound convincing to voters with strong anti-migrant convictions.

Desperate times, desperate measures

With two weeks remaining before election day, Babis has once more stepped up the anti-migration rhetoric. Traveling to Hungary for the annual demographic summit organised by Viktor Orban’s government on September 22-23, he gave a speech denouncing the “import of migrants, mostly from the Middle-East and Africa, who are from diametrically different cultural environments.“

Echoing far-right theories on the ‘Great Replacement’, he claimed that “native inhabitants are under pressure“ in Western Europe and rhetorically asked “Will Europe still be Europe in twenty years?“ He concluded by stating that “the only really sustainable solution to the dying of Europe is the increase of our own, native population’s birthrate.“

Babis did not miss the opportunity to stage a photoshoot at Hungary’s border fence with Orban, and his Hungarian counterpart promptly announced that he will come to the Czech Republic to support Babis at the latter’s electoral meeting on September 29.

Commenting on the move for Deník N, politologist Eva Lebedová from Olomouc University called it a “smart manoeuvre“. “It can be a good strategic move at the end of the campaign to polarize by showing ‘what I don’t want’ and offer it to voters,“ she explains. According to her, this can help the Prime Minister mobilise some undecided voters and discourage opposition voters to support his main opponents.

If Babis manages to make the topic of migration central in the final stretch, he could get a hoped-for boost. With around 25% of voting intentions and facing two opposition coalitions with a combined support of approximately 40%, the Prime Minister is facing an uphill battle in October.

While he could finish first in two weeks, he will likely struggle to garner enough support to build a government coalition and secure a majority in Parliament. He might resort to an unholy alliance with the far-right and conservative communists, commanding 10% and 5% of the vote respectively, but it could still prove insufficient to stay in power.

His increasingly radical rhetoric seems to be a last-ditch attempt to win over voters from smaller parties on the far-right, unlikely to make it past the 5% threshold but who together represent about 8% of voting intentions.

Finally, this last-minute turn is also seen as a bow to the current president Milos Zeman, well known for his anti-migrant views and xenophobic rhetoric. Zeman has struck an unofficial alliance with Premier Babis, and it is expected that he will do everything in his power to keep him at the head of the next government, possibly allowing him to lead a minority government if the two opposition coalitions do not secure a clear majority.

This article is published as part of a project to promote independent digital media in Central and Eastern Europe funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and coordinated by Notes from Poland.

By André Kapsas

A Prague-based correspondent, André is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.