Migration fears top Czech campaign despite few refugees

Migrants wearing burkas and hijabs attack a Czech pensioner, kick over her walker and dash into a building with a sign saying 'welfare benefits', leaving her lying helpless on the pavement.

The staged election clip then tells Czech voters “you can choose whether to give money to our children and seniors or to Muslims and Africans”.

The far-right Bloc Against Islamisation, which produced the clip, is one of 31 parties running in the Czech Republic’s October 20-21 general election.

Like the far-right National Front in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Germany’s hard-right AfD and Austria’s resurgent populist Freedom Party, Czech election contenders of various political stripes have stoked concerns about a record influx of migrants into Europe.

But unlike elsewhere in the EU, migration has become a key campaign issue in the Czech Republic despite the marked absence of migrants and refugees.

The EU country of 10.6 million people, whose president is openly anti-Muslim, has accepted just 12 of the 1,600 refugees it was asked to take in over the last two years under the bloc’s quota scheme.

While most refugees from the Middle East opted to head for wealthier western European countries like Germany or Sweden, Czech parties have still seized on the political capital to be gained from playing on fears over terrorism and economic welfare to campaign on an anti-Muslim and anti-migrant platform.

“This has little to do with a real problem, because there is really no migration here,” Jiri Pehe, an independent political analyst, told AFP.

“Parties have merely found out that the migration, terrorism, Islam threats work so they are using them,” he said.

In an April poll by the CVVM institute, a part of the Czech Academy of Sciences, 60 percent of Czechs said their country should not accept migrants at all, while only three percent would let them stay for good.

Prague has protested strongly against the EU-wide refugee quota scheme, alongside ex-Communist peers Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

– ‘Single-issue parties’ –

“We need a dam against the hateful Islamist ideology,” says Tomas Erlich, a Prague resident who says he will vote for Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), an openly anti-migrant party.

Led by Tokyo-born entrepreneur and lawmaker Tomio Okamura, it has links to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front.

Tomio Okamura, the Japan born leader of the anti-migrant Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party

Islam “is incompatible with democracy and European law and values. The western experience makes this clear,” Erlich told AFP.

Yet he denied being xenophobic, insisting that he had nothing “against the incredibly hard-working, intelligent Chinese or Vietnamese refugees”.

The SPD scored 7.3-percent voter support in a September poll by the CVVM institute, surpassing the five-percent threshold a party needs to make it to the 200-seat parliament.

Dubbed the “Czech Trump” by tabloids, billionaire businessman Andrej Babis who heads the populist ANO movement poised to win the vote, has also repeatedly said he does not want refugees in the country.

“Migration has become a cherished topic for populist parties, particularly single-issue parties, which don’t offer anything other than stopping migration,” says Yana Leontiyeva, a sociologist at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

The rhetoric has struck a chord with Czechs who “are much more worried by migrants compared with other Europeans and also far more critical of the perceived potential benefits of migration,” Leontiyeva said.

– ‘Vicious circle’ –

Josef Mlejnek, an analyst at Charles University in Prague, said he observed “a shift in the society” as voters who are not traditionally far-right share the same fears.

“We have almost no migrants and the Czech Republic is going through its best time economically, we have low unemployment, wages are growing… and yet people are dissatisfied, even angry,” he told AFP.

“I’m asking myself about the reasons. My guess is a combination of personal frustration and a general problem — for instance, Babis keeps saying corruption is everywhere and people get sensitive,” Mlejnek added.

With unemployment at 3.8 percent in September, the lowest level since 1998, the Czech economy is expected to grow by 3.6 percent, according to the central bank.

Anti-migrant sentiment is also fuelled by outspoken President Milos Zeman, who has called the migrant wave “an organised invasion” and said Muslims were “impossible to integrate”.

“The political scene has degenerated into trade in fear, which is the strategy of almost all political parties,” said Pehe.

Babis’s ANO, which forms the current three-party coalition government with the leftwing Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats, topped the latest CVVM poll with 30.9 percent support.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats, second with 13.1-percent backing, have vowed to stop “illegal migration”.

The rightwing Civic Democrats, another major party, want countries unable to protect their borders to be ousted from the border-free Schengen zone.

“Politicians want to satisfy the people who fear migrants and terrorism and they also highlight the virtual threats or even create them and then offer a solution,” said Pehe.

“It’s a vicious circle.”

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