International Media Coverage and the Czech Election

Milos Zeman is the new president of the Czech Republic, and about sixty-six percent of Prague voters and an even larger proportion of young voters are pissed. Zeman represents to many the continuation of a dysfunctional plutocracy disguised as “free-market” conservatism. His election campaign was recognized as repugnant in its xenophobia and implantation of underhanded misinformation regarding his opponent to essentially scare or enrage conservative, rural voters into electing him. At the same time, Zeman does mark the end of Vaclav Klaus’s awkward anti-European Union and climate change stances. In other words, he is reasonable and, apparently, less self-interested than his predecessor. But what does the international community think of Zeman’s rise to power on the tide of anti-German and pro-Nationalist sentiments?

The New York Times, reporting on Zeman’s presidential win, cited Petr Pithart, longtime senator and former Prime Minister of the Czech Republic—and guest at the upcoming Prague Writers’ Festival—, as saying that Zeman “plays on basic fears like xenophobia” and is a “relic of the past.” The Times further notes that Zeman is viewed as “personally incorruptible” but tends to stick his foot in his mouth and bury it there deeply and remorselessly.

Other publications posted less detailed, and generally less critical, appraisals of Zeman’s election. The U.K.’s Guardian provided a snippet of general information without analysis or significant criticism, whereas Raw Story issued a relatively lengthy story lacking on details or insights. Gone from these accounts are the widespread criticisms among liberal Czech citizens of Zeman. Moreover, some news outlets, such as the Economist, conflate Karel Schwarzenberg’s loss with his attachment to the unpopular Czech parliament and austerity measures. Indeed, despite intellectual and artist support for Schwarzenberg, he is generally described as the more conservative candidate. The more one reads foreign journalism on the topic, the more the Prague reaction to the election seems reliably biased and, frankly, strange. Why, one must wonder, would the young urbane, the artists and the intellectuals of the Czech Republic support the more conservative candidate whose party is mired in political corruption and scandals? Clearly there is some disconnect between international reporting and national sentiments.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Schwarzenberg did not use his party affiliation as a positive component during his campaign, instead neglecting it entirely. According to the Economist, Schwarzenberg’s party, as a member of the ruling coalition, is seen as inextricably tied to the political corruption that has plagued that nation in recent years. His omission, then, was a strategic move designed to separate his personal appeal from his party’s unpopularity. But there seems to be more to the story. In fact, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding and miscommunication between Western journalists and Czech opposition to Zeman. Few foreign publications noted Zeman’s employment of anti-German sentiments against Schwarzenberg.

Reuters ranks among the few to acknowledge that Zeman “accused Schwarzenberg of backing the cause of some three million ethnic Germans, known as Sudeten Germans.” Zeman twisted Schwarzenberg’s accurate portrayal of the expulsion of three million German as a war crime into a pro-German, anti-Czech betrayal. Zeman further pointed to his opponent’s exile to Austria during the reign of Communism and to Schwarzenberg’s Austrian wife as evidence that he, Schwarzenberg, was unfit to assume the presidency of the Czech Republic.

The questions, then, continue to mount as to the reason behind the contrast between international media coverage and domestic reactions to the election. The information dispensed by international media outlets is diverse, contradictory and scant, while opinions in the Czech Republic, while generally far more vociferously felt and explained, are themselves dispersed across the political spectrum. Zeman, who considers himself a populist, won with the poor largely because recent tax increases and austerity measure have hit the lower strata of the Czech Republic harder than they have the urban and middle classes. Or did he? Depending on whom one consults, Zeman may have won for these traditional political differences or for his treatment of Schwarzenberg as a German-loving Austrian outsider. Was it xenophobia, or was it politics? A fair and respectable election, or a national embarrassment ignored by an apathetic international media? The verdict is out, but the election is over.

published: 29. 5. 2013