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Turning Point for the Czech Republic? An interview with the Czech Greens Leader

By Matěj Stropnický , Morgan Henley

Czechs are already bracing themselves for what will surely be a change in the political landscape of the country on the national legislative elections of the 20 and 21 October. Polls today put the new pro-EU and populist party ANO 2011 comfortably in the lead and could give them enough of a mandate to form a one-party government, which has many in the country seriously worried. The party is headed by the billionaire Andrej Babiš who was formerly the Minister of Finance until being forced to step down over European Union funding fraud charges. For the Czech Greens, breaking past the necessary 5% threshold would be a huge victory. Yet polls put them anywhere between 2% and 5% and in this interview, we hear from the leader of the Czech Greens, Matěj Stropnický, who gives us some insight about how they are trying to stay positive with their current campaign, the possible political scenarios for the Greens, and what role the EU has played in this campaign.

The elections are very soon, how are you feeling, generally?

This is the first time in the history of the Czech Green Party that we are doing a tour of all the cities of over 20,000 inhabitants. We’re stopping at 90 places with two caravans. I’m making a video from every city I go to, doing an interview with one of the locals of the Greens who describe what they are working on, what are their successes or their battles. This is quite successful because it also motivates the party and the members.

During the summer we were able to present the programme as we had a set of six or seven press conferences. Our campaign is divided into three parts. One is, ‘Modern State’. This is about the education, economy, infrastructure, wages, non-fossil energy, transport: these kinds of topics. Then there is ‘Healthy Nature,’ which is mainly about soil, agriculture, fresh air, how to deal with flooding, food quality, the lack of water in the summer and so on. We’re showing how climate change is already happening in the Czech Republic and that it’s visible here and now. The third part is ‘Security and Assurance,’ meaning social assurance. We added the security agenda into the headlines even though it’s not a typical topic associated with the Greens here. Security for us is more about social and climate security. Then the general Green agenda, the pay gap, family programmes and so on.

What has been the reception to the campaign?

There are quite a lot of debates and the Czech Public Broadcasting, instead of allocating the debate spots on the voting preferences, do it based on the voting potential. According to those numbers, they set up debates in all the regions. There are 14 TV debates on each topic and since we had 7% in the polls, we also got into these debates. That’s also a chance for the regional leaders, and topic leaders, as no person can be on more than one debate. In this, the whole party can participate, but it can be difficult. Some of them have never been on TV, never in a debate before.

But we are fighting, even though there are people here who are afraid of “the lost vote.” Every time this is the biggest challenge for us and this time the danger of one big winning party is felt stronger than usual as the probable winner of the election, Andrej Babiš, has around 30% and all the other parties have under 20%, which is quite unusual. This was normal in the 90s and sometimes it happened after 2000. Now a lot of people who usually vote for us are saying, “I will only vote for you if you make sure you get there”, which is really difficult.

Also, there’s a film about Babiš, which is called Selský rozum (‘Common Sense’), which we broadcasted in some cities. The Czech Public Television was a co-producer of the film but we made a contract directly with the authors of the documentary because the Czech Television was not broadcasting it. We’re asking why, which became a topic in the media. This showed the Greens as a party that is not just fighting Babiš by saying he’s an oligarch but in a more sophisticated way. The film presents how he rules the enterprises he has. From the environmental destruction, the low-quality food, the low wages, the money from the European Union, and so on. We show that Babiš is doing everything for himself and his businesses and not for the state or the people. On all these topics, we have recipes on how to do it otherwise.

What are the different political scenarios you see after the election?

If we get there, then I would prefer not to go into government, not this time. You cannot do everything in the government if, of the 200 members of the Parliament, you have six like we had last time[1]. I’m not saying 100% no to a coalition which would probably be led by the Social Democrats. We would need to speak very seriously about the programme in such a coalition. But the polls suggest that there a coalition containing the Social Democrats would be impossible without a majority of support from the right-wing parties and I do not want to join a rightist government. I think that being in the opposition is a great opportunity. We have shown repeatedly from the opposition if you articulate things that no one else does, you can set the agenda and that’s more important than the everyday business of the ministries.

If we, however, don’t get into the parliament… it depends very much on what the score is. We definitely have to get over 3% and hopefully, over the score from last time: 3.2% in 2013. That assures us regular money from the state, about 10 million every year, depending on the score. That’s important to have the office and to finance the communal elections, which are next year and to basically go on as a regular organisation.

From Brussels, it’s clear that there is a divide between the newer and the older European Union Member States on many topics, from refugees, to climate policy and equal rights etc. There is even talk of a ‘two-speed Europe,’ where the newer Member States, such as those in the Visegrad Four, are integrating in the EU at a different rate than the older ones. What is your view on that?

There still is the difference between the east and the west but I think it has a tendency to become less and less important. The mainstream of the population of the Visegrad countries is probably less tolerant and not as consciously devoted to tolerance and differences of cultures and thoughts, which I still view as a quality of the Western part of the European Union. This is also an aspect of a country and nation that was for very long, centuries, facing attempts to be erased as a nation. We must try to understand why this fear, why the reaction here, is so much more frenetic than it is in the West.

What role has the EU played in this election? Is there any discussion about issues that French President Emmanuel Macron has brought up, such as ‘multi-speed Europe’ or the post-worker directive?

It is a topic but there are not special debates concerning the European Union. The euro was a topic a little bit during some weeks during the summer when there were some meetings between the Czech Prime Minister and Emmanuel Macron. So, during these days, yes. But besides that, it’s a topic behind the scenes. Just as on the topics of NATO and the EU, it leads to the favourite question of Central Europe, where does the country belong? We have to mention and redefine the position of the country towards the East and the West. So we’re repeating that we’re a part of both the EU and NATO. NATO is much more popular here than the EU, which is difficult for the Greens.

The European Union is not too popular here, this I can see in the countryside. The people always have a bunch of examples of regulations that they see in their daily life, which they tend to evaluate as stupid. In addition to all these examples that people see, there is the ‘rum affair’ at the moment. So now all the media is discussing that a special Czech rum, Tuzemak, cannot be called rum anymore because it has different components than the original rum. The Czech one is not made from sugarcane but potatoes. Now the European Union is saying there are some cancer particles in the components of the Czech rum so it has to be banned. This is an opportunity for the politicians, to say that ‘oh, I will save our rum! We will drink until there’s none left,’ and so on. This is stupid and it is not well timed from the European Union.

So there’s nothing in the broader debate about a two-speed Europe and how the Czech Republic sees itself in the EU?

In the sophisticated debates, yes, but not in the general debates.

Do the Greens have a position on this?

We want to be in the centre of the EU, in the nucleus. But we want to reform it obviously, in a very different way. We have in the election programme that we want a federal EU; I’m a federalist. We have to have a clear position in the debate about what are the scenarios for the EU. If we’re saying Europe needs reforms, no one’s interested.  You have to mention criticism of the European Union to get their attention and then you can say what should happen in a united Europe. But you have to say this first part and do it in a way that you prepare the audience to the solution that you want to propose. Not the destruction but the reconstruction of the EU in this federalist direction.

[1] The Czech Greens were a part of a failed government coalition with the Conservatives (ODS) and Christian Democrats (KDU–ČSL) from 2007 to 2009.

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Turning Point for the Czech Republic? An interview with the Czech Greens Leader

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