Populist parties set for 10 percent of Czech EU vote
Czech voters have only just voted in national elections so persuading them to go to the urns once more is seen as the biggest challenge ahead of the May EU vote.
Nevertheless unexpected candidates have already popped up to make it a lively campaign.
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The elections at the end of October last year brought victory to the social democrats, with 20.45 percent of the vote, and to a new protest movement known as ANO 2011 which got 18.65 percent.
Together with the Christian Democrats (6.78 percent) they formed a coalition government. But the new executive only took office during the last week of January.
It is precisely because of the unusually long post-election negotiations and the lengthy political crisis that resulted in last year's caretaker government that Czechs may feel fed up with politics and ignore the European vote, say social researchers.
"The European elections usually fall in the second half of a government's mandate, turning it into a referendum on the current executive," says Daniel Kunstat, a sociologist at the Centre for Public Opinions Surveys (CVVM) in Prague.
"But this will not be the case this year," he continues. "In May, it will be the new cabinet's fourth month of office. That’s not enough time to generate strong feelings and therefore secure substantial participation."
Only highly politically motivated people will show up at the ballots, according to Daniel Prokop, researcher with Median, a polling agency.
"I would expect the turnout to be even lower than the 28 percent we saw in 2009," he says.
So voting will either confirm the parties' status in the October elections – as suggested in a brand new survey by the CVVM – or a space will open up for an unusual campaign.
The sociologist versus the lobbyist
The social democrats have chosen well-known university professor Jan Keller to head their European election list.
While Keller, a sociologist, appears an odd choice for an urban population with his almost neomarxist rhetoric and 1980s look, he is a savvy public speaker and knows how to appeal to the lower middle classes living outside the big towns.
"In this country an EU campaign never had a strong social theme with a European feel. This may change this year," says Prokop, pointing to the EU’s high rate of unemployment.
"Social inequality, the decline of the welfare state and the crisis of capitalism, these are Jan Keller’s very topics. And he knows how to reach out to the audience. People only have to believe he can make a difference."
The ANO movement has nominated Pavel Telicka, the Czech Republic’s first EU Commissioner, to head its list.
Telicka worked as a lobbyist in Brussels for several years after his term as commissioner ended. With his poker face and expensive watch, he embodies a business world that Jan Keller opposes.
The likelihood of these two dominating the campaign is high, particularly as there appears to be no one else to take the limelight.
The centre-right ODS, for example, is in a shambles due to scandals and weak party leadership. Having for several years been one of the dominant parties in Czech politics it is now set to get just 5-7 percent of the vote.
But it may well be that Czech voters follow their western European neighbours and support anti-establishment or xenophobic parties.
As a landlocked and extremely ethnically homogeneous state of 10 million people, the Czech Republic is not fertile soil for the classic anti-immigration agenda of the West. But there is antipathy in many quarters towards the 300,000-strong Roma minority.
This reached its peak last year when the white majority marched against Romas in regions with a substantial Romany presence.
The marches were organised by extremist groups but locals took to the streets with them to shout "gypsy bastards" in front of Roma houses and to the faces of the riot police.
Such anti-Roma sentiment provides a clue to the success of Usvit (or the Dawn), a new populist movement led by travel-agent-turned-politician Tomio Okamura.
Usvit was only founded in spring of last year, but it managed to make it into parliament in the October elections, scooping 6.88 percent of the vote. It did particularly well in the areas where the anti-Roma marches were held.
Okamura, who is half Czech and half Japanese-Korean, has suggested Roma people should be encouraged to "leave the Czech Republic to form their own state – for example in India, the place of their ancestors".
One public poll in January saw him named the country’s most trustworthy politician.
"Okamura's Usvit successfully steals the agenda from the extremists and thrives on the latent anti-gypsy sentiment of the Czech people," says Petra Vejvodova, a Czech specialist on extremist politics.
Usvit has chosen the controversial lawyer, Klara Samkova, to lead its European election campaign. In her first media pronouncement as head of the list for the EU election, she praised Europe for being a fortress when it comes to immigration.
"We're sorry, don't get aboard your shanty boats. We will not receive you," was her message from Prague to refugees on Italy’s Lampedusa island, the first European port of call for thousands of migrants from Africa.
Pollsters say populist politics could get 10 percent of the votes in the EU elections, with Usvit scooping the lion's share.
Will Vaclav Klaus run or not?
Meanwhile, mystery surrounds the possible candidacy of former Czech president and famous EU critic, Vaclav Klaus.
There was much speculation recently that he would end his career with a stint as an MEP. For now, however, his spokesman is refusing to answer any questions about his boss's ambitions.
This may be because Klaus' resurrection has already failed once.
During the recent national elections, he accepted to be the VIP supporter of an umbrella group of nationalists and hardcore eurosceptics. They scored just 0.42 percent of the vote.
But according to pollsters, if he lines up with Okamura, Klaus' euroscepticism might just tempt some more voters over to Usvit.
Czech voters will elect 21 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 23 and 24 May.