Patrick J. O Brien

Czech President Petr Pavel takes aim at populism as it loses its public allure

Czech President Petr Pavel a new and welcomed voice in Europe (Image courtesy of author)
Czech President Petr Pavel a new and welcomed voice in Europe (Image courtesy of author)

To me ‘Populism’ is a dirty word because doing what the population wants is not necessarily what the population needs. The example per excellence is Latin America, where successive governments corrupted democracy by doing what the majority wanted as a way of keeping their political group in power as much as possible. Populism itself isn’t bad per se, but all too often it’s adopted by people who just want to seem to be on the side of ordinary people to drive their own agendas. A “fool the common people” approach to politics. These types of populists will say anything to get elected, even if they don’t believe in the idea or have any intention of taking any steps to do things once elected.  

As we enter 2024, countries across the world are struggling to manage the issue of mass migration, with incumbent governments facing a right-wing populist backlash if they fail to take strong action. The electoral success of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is a foretaste of what might be to come in elections across the EU, including for the European Parliament. It’s no longer just Britain threatening to water-down refugee protections and turn away migrants. 

Donald Trump is a pure example of an authoritarian populist. And one of the key characteristics of populism lies in a leader’s belief that they, and they alone, truly represent the people. That explains why Trump kept clashing with democratic institutions over the course of his presidency. Whenever he ran up against the limits of his constitutional authority, he balked at the idea that somebody else, a judge, a bureaucrat, or a member of Congress could tell him what to do. In his mind, only he had the right to speak for the country. 

When it comes to elections, next year is a big one. The campaign leading up to the EU elections next June will put our democracies to the test. The Czech Republic has twice thwarted populists’ rise to power. In autumn 2021 extremist forces were defeated in a general election, after which a centre-right government was formed, led by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Composed of five not entirely homogeneous parties, it remains united and has a stable majority in the Chamber of Deputies. And on March 9th this year, a new president, Petr Pavel, a retired army general, was inaugurated, having defeated the populist Andrej Babiš in January’s election. Pavel, who became president after defeating populist billionaire and former prime minister Andrej Babiš in January’s elections, is confident populism gloabally can be defeated. 

“The temptation to manipulate realities for short-term political gain will be enormous. We all have a huge responsibility to articulate problems as they really are. My presidential election campaign has proved that populism is not the only vehicle to electoral success,” he reminded. 

Pavel has the potential to turn the page in Europe. As a former military leader, he can appeal to people more easily than political elites. The Czech Army is now one of the country’s most trusted institutions, whereas the public tends to doubt politicians. Before taking office, Pavel plans to travel to poor regions home to Babis’s support base and discuss possible solutions to structural social and economic problems, such as affordable housing shortages, limited job opportunities, and low levels of education. These regions include areas along the Czech Republic’s border with Germany and Poland, where the expulsion of the German-speaking population after World War II left long-lasting scars. Pavel advocated actively protecting democracy and strengthening ties with European and transatlantic allies. 

“We should suppress rivalry and instead encourage an even closer cooperation to preserve our common values. The values are not limited to any country or continent. A worldwide alliance of democratic countries can make us stronger and more resilient to even more prominent threats like climate change and disinformation,” Pavel said. He also called for continued support for Ukraine and said Europe should not make concessions to Russia. “Russia must be defeated in Ukraine. And it must withdraw from Ukrainian sovereign territory,” said Pavel, a former head of NATO’s Military Committee. 

Populists promise simple solutions. It’s part of the allure, this idea that there’s a simple fix that other people are simply too dumb, corrupt, or blinkered to see, and that the Great Leader has identified. “Build the wall,” “tax the rich,” “ban the evil book,” etc. You’ve doubtless heard these types of appeals all your life.

About the Author
Patrick J O Brien is an acclaimed journalist and Director of Exante who has been working in the media for almost 25 years. Patrick who hails from Ireland is based in Malta and a contributor to some of the world’s leading financial and political magazines. Recently he returned from Ukraine where he was reporting at ground level on the escalation of war and spent time documenting the work of the Red Cross and many human right organisations
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