An Electoral-Geographical Paradox in Czechia? Not Really

In the January 2023 presidential election in Czechia (the Czech Republic), former army general Petr Pavel decisively defeated former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, with Pavel taking 58.33 percent of the vote to Babiš’s 41.67. Most political leaders and commentators in Western Europe and North America were relieved by this outcome. Pavel is noted for his strong pro-NATO and pro-Western views. He is also a social progressive. Finding inspiration in Scandinavian countries, he supports same-sex marriage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and increased economic redistribution. He also opposes the death penalty. Babiš, in contrast, has expressed skepticism towards NATO and is often regarded as having authoritarian tendencies. He rejects the European Union’s refugee policy, arguing that it is the responsibility of the Czech government to look after the interest of Czech citizens, and has made dismissive comments about his country’s Roma (or Romani) minority. In 2013, he won a satirical prize for the “anti-ecological comment of the year.” Babiš is also extremely wealthy and has been involved in a number a financial and political scandals.

Maps of the 2023 Czech presidential election show a distinct metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide. Although Pavel won the majority of the votes cast across most of the country, his level of support was significantly higher in the Prague metropolitan area, in Brno, Czechia’s second largest city, and in Plzeň, its fourth largest. Babiš, in contrast, did better in rural areas and those dominated by small cities. The one important exception was the metropolitan area of Ostrava, located in the northeastern part of the country. Ostrava is Czechia’s “rust belt,” a region formerly dominated by coal mining and steelmaking that experienced significant decline after the fall of communist rule. It is not surprising that the socially progressive, pro-Western candidate Pavel performed poorly in such an area.

The geographical patterns described above are similar to those found in recent elections in the United States and Western Europe. From an American perspective, Pavel would certainly be regarded as the more left-wing candidate and Babiš as the more right-wing one. But the situation is more complicated. Pavel, for example, describes himself as “right of center,” owing largely to his support for corporate interests and economic orthodoxy. The more populist Babiš, for his part, enacted some policies when he was Prime Minister that would generally be regarded as left-leaning, including increasing pensions and public-sector salaries. Many Czechs therefore reverse the “right-wing” and “left-wing” tags for the two politicians. Consider, for example, the map below, originally posted on Reddit Europe by the Czech commentator “Victor D.” Here the Prague region is mapped as almost always voting for right-wing candidate – as are the country’s other major cities, except left-voting Ostrava. Victor D. depicts rural areas and those dominated by small cities as habitually supporting candidates on the left. He understands that such categorizations run counter to those found in Western Europe:

Western Europeans please note: the usual European situation where cities are mainly left-leaning while the countryside is more right-leaning is reversed in Czechia. This is mainly because the left is, due to historical developments, seen as the “conservative” force in the country, while the right has been the driving force for change and reform. As a result, large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…”

It seems to me that the “usual European situation” is not reversed in Czechia: what is reversed is rather the meaning of the terms “left” and “right.” The connotations of these essential political categories have been in flux for some time in western Europe and especially in North America. The left historically found its main base of support in the working class, which generally opposes the economic interests of the elites but also tends to have somewhat conservative views on social and cultural issues. In recent decades, political parties previously identified as left-wing have turned more to affluent professionals, business leaders, and college-educated workers in the service sector, simultaneously losing support among the traditional working class. Put differently, traditional class politics in “the West” have declined in importance, whereas those associated with identity groups and social, cultural, and environmental issues have become increasingly central.

Such changes in political affiliation and categorization present major problems for communication. From the perspective of current political discourse in the United States, Victor D’s assertion that “large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…” makes no sense whatsoever. But if the terms are defined in a different and most historical manner, they make perfect sense.

I have long been reluctant to use the term “liberal” when discussing politics, as the meanings of this term can be so different as to be diametrically opposed. In the U.S., someone now described as an “extreme liberal” sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from a “neo-liberal,” whose views would be more accurately described as “paleo-liberal.” I now sometimes wonder whether even “left” and “right” have become so unmoored from their original meanings as to lose their utility as terms of analysis. But what could possibly replace them?  We seem to be stuck in a situation of fundamental paradox and ambiguity.