On Friday and Saturday, voters will head to the polls in the Czech Republic for a presidential runoff vote between incumbent Miloš Zeman and his competitor, Jiří Drahoš. The polls are very close, with Czeska Televisa 24 / MF Dnes reporting a slight lead for Drahos with 47 percent of the vote to Zeman’s 43 percent, with ten percent still undecided.
In Czech, the president appoints the prime minister, making this vote more than a referendum on Zeman’s past performance. Waiting in the wings is billionaire populist and recently elected Prime Minister Andrej Babiš of the ANO (“Yes”) party, who has endorsed Zeman and expects his support if he wins in forming a government. A vote for Zeman then is a vote for Babiš, who is under investigation by Czech authorities for decades-old corruption charges related to EU subsidy fraud, charges which he denies. Whether this association is an advantage or a liability will only become clear this weekend.
As we have explained previously, the immigration debate in the Czech Republic is extremely tilted towards immigration restrictionist views, with nearly all parties and political figures united in their opposition to accepting asylum seekers as part of the EU’s proposed quota distribution system, and politicians making outspoken remarks against migrants from Muslim majority countries. Both Babis and Zeman have in the past made remarks characterizing people who migrate or seek asylum as dangerous threats to Czech citizens, with Zeman comparing Muslims in general to Nazis and warning of a “super-Holocaust” during an interview with the Guardian in 2016. Such violent rhetoric has been accompanied by a rise in hate speech and an antagonistic environment for minorities. (Given that there are very few accepted refugees in the country, threats and attacks have rather been aimed at minority groups such as Roma and groups who show support for refugees, according to Amnesty International.) In addition, Zeman is an important figure in the Visegrad Group, the club of countries (with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary) that have strongly opposed EU distribution of people seeking asylum.
But where does his opponent Drahoš stand, and would a win for him be an opening for a change in the country’s stance on migration?
Drahoš, formerly the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences, lays out his stance on refugees on his website, where it is second on his list of “frequently asked questions“. He states, “As a scientist, I am used to finding solutions to problems and I believe that even the refugee crisis has its solution.” This would consist of the following steps, according to Drahoš:
- Strengthen secret services to help identify people entering the EU and offer assistance to Italy,
- Invest in measures to improve the living conditions in countries people are currently fleeing from,
- Distinguish between “real” refugees and people who are seeking welfare benefits, who he ideally would not let in at all,
- Terrorism is not a reason for excluding refugees and can be combatted, but we must fight against the erosion of our values and standards,
- Migrants should be interviewed at European borders to determine whether they are willing to embrace European norms and values.
In short, Drahoš embraces a center-right stance on asylum, a view that on the surface has much in common with other mainstream parties in Europe, such as Mark Rutte’s VVD in the Netherlands. These proposals also largely match the solutions stated by the Visegrad group. The “V4” also calls for aid packages to incentivize people to stay in their home countries and for better distinction between what they refer to as “economic migrants” and refugees. Drahoš’ policy proposals fit squarely in, with the exception that he does not outright oppose quotas (at least here), but rather argues that forcing people to stay in a country they to which they did not intend to immigrate violates the principle of freedom of movement, a creative argument that somewhat avoids the question.
His proposals also enter familiar territory for the center-right immigration stance: ideas that sound tough but end up flirting with illegality or impossibility. For instance, pre-selecting between “real” refugees and others, “ideally” outside of the borders is an idea frequently floated but in violation of the ground principals of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other laws and treaties. Namely, individuals have a right to leave their own country, to enter a country to ask for asylum and to have their claims evaluated while they remain in the country. Sending them back to a country where they potentially face persecution or preventing them from entering before evaluating their claim risks violating binding international and European law. (We have pointed this out repeatedly in response to similar proposals by the Front National and the Tories.)
Further, conducting interviews to ascertain whether individuals adhere to “European values” is perhaps not illegal but highly unrealistic. What are “European values”? How is asking someone to adhere to European values different or better than holding them to follow the law? How can you square the requirement to hold a certain set of beliefs in order to enter with the European legal concept of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights article nine?
These policies differ from Zeman not so much in substance as in style. While Zeman has run a “non-campaign” and has not proposed concrete policies, he has made his opposition to migrants, and especially people from Muslim majority countries, well-known. In an interview with Večernje Novosti in 2017, he repeated his typical war-like language to describe migrants and Muslims more generally:
“…[I]t is said that in Africa, at least several million people are ready to migrate to Europe. Because they are mostly Muslims whose culture is incompatible with European culture, I do not believe in the ability to assimilate them.
By the way, when you look at the history of Europe, it was actually a constant war with Muslims. And I think that Serbia has experienced it, among other things, in Kosovo’s field.”
These comments don’t elucidate much in the way of policy recommendations and do not differentiate between migrants who are Muslim or citizens of Europe who are Muslim. In either case, he is suggesting that they do not belong because of their religious affiliation and should be viewed as a hostile enemy, as the Ottoman military forces were in Kosovo in 1389, but he does not promote any policy proposals to exclude them. It is rhetoric that promotes fear and enmity without directing it anywhere concrete- perhaps because policies that exclude or discriminate on the basis of religious belief violate numerous European laws and do not stand up to judicial scrutiny.
The fact is, even with a incomplete or unrealistic immigration policy, Drahoš presents an alternative to rhetoric that relies on fears from back in the Middle Ages. The policies he promotes do not suggest a major departure for the Czech Republic’s stance on refugees and migrants, but they do take a risk in actually spelling out ideas that can be subjected to debate. As the President of Czech does not legislate, his stance on the refugee issue is mainly symbolic. But for voters, its a question of a leader who sounds like other mainstream European leaders, or one who sounds like he is expecting all-out war against a religious minority.