A far-right party whose leader has called for Islam to be banned in the Czech Republic garnered a surprisingly high percentage of votes in the country’s election this weekend. While the centrist ANO movement—led by the billionaire media mogul Andrej Babis, whom some have compared to Donald Trump—won easily with 29.6 percent of the vote, three parties were close to tying for second place, including the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD). As Newsweek writes in the article COULD CZECH REPUBLIC BAN ISLAM? FAR-RIGHT, ANTI-ISLAM PARTY DOES WELL IN ELECTIONS, after the election results were released, the SPD leader, Tomio Okamura, told reporters: “We want to stop any Islamization of the Czech Republic; we push for zero tolerance of migration.”
Analysts say it is unlikely that Babis would form a government with Okamura or go as far as banning Islam outright. Nevertheless, the SPD’s Islamophobic rhetoric has pushed ANO to take a tougher stance against immigrants and refugees, many of whom come from Muslim countries. “SPD’s rhetoric does influence ANO, or rather, ANO has capitalized on the same fears that Okamura’s party has: namely the fear of the unknown,” said Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher with Freedom House. “Central Europe has little experience with immigration, and recent terror attacks in Western Europe could easily be used by politicians to whip up negative feelings. ANO is not alone in approaching the question very cynically and seeing it as an opportunity to increase support for the party.”
Babis has promised to cut back on immigration and to run his country like a business.
The Czech Republic has just 11,000 Muslims, who make up 0.1 percent of the population. But according to Dr. Jan Čulík, a lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, “historical hang-ups” make the Czech population susceptible to xenophobic messages. “The small and the middle-sized Central European nations have never been able to rid themselves of their fear that they could be annihilated or that their national community could cease to exist,” Čulík wrote in a recent article titled "Why Is the Czech Republic So Hostile to Muslims and Refugees?".
“These historical hang-ups seem to have played an important role in contemporary politics in the Czech Republic.” This is a sentiment the half-Japanese Okamura capitalized on. The businessman has suggested that Czechs stop eating kebabs and begin walking pigs outside of mosques. He has also called Islam "an ideology" rather than a religion.
Okamura, who grew up in both Japan and the Czech Republic, hasn’t always taken a hard line on immigration. In 2011, he acted as a judge for the Czech Republic’s Miss Expat beauty pageant, where he posed for photographs with bikini-clad immigrants.
Babis has invited all nine parties that won seats in parliament, including Okamura’s, to discuss the formation of a government. Several parties have indicated that they will not work with Babis because he allegedly misused European Union subsidies, among other financial crimes.
The election of a populist government is viewed by many as part of a larger trend in European politics.
Earlier this month, Austria’s conservative People’s Party, whose leader, Sebastian Kurz, has called for tough measures against “political Islam,” won a majority of seats in the country’s parliament. Kurz is expected to form a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which argues that Islam is incompatible with European values. More than half of Austrian voters backed parties that took a hard line on immigration and multiculturalism.
In Germany last month, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD), which campaigned on anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rhetoric, entered parliament for the first time, becoming the third-largest party in the country’s legislature.