Czech Voters Deal a Blow to Populism

The election of Petr Pavel is important to Czechs—and to Americans.

Czech President-elect Petr Pavel arrives for an interview with Agence France-Presse on his foreign policy in Prague, on February 2.
Czech President-elect Petr Pavel arrives for an interview with Agence France-Presse on his foreign policy in Prague, on February 2. (Michal Cizek / AFP via Getty)

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Only a few years ago, democracies around the world seemed to be turning toward the pluto-populists, the wealthy men and women who convinced millions of ordinary voters that liberal democracy had run its course. They’re still out there—but their star may be dimming.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Pushing Back the Tide

In the autumn of 2017, I was in the Czech Republic on a speaking tour at the invitation of the U.S. Department of State to talk about the problem of disinformation and democracy. One night in Pilsen, a lovely city about an hour from Prague, I finished my presentation and asked for questions and discussion. A young man, speaking very good English, asked me if I would like to comment on the idea that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were involved with a ring of pedophiles, a common internet conspiracy theory that had already been around for a while and is now at the heart of the QAnon madness. I responded that this was a debunked story and that I was not going to be drawn into a debate about it.

After the talk, I spoke with this young man. I said, “You know better than this.” He smiled and admitted that the story was bunk, but that he’d just wanted to see what I would say. “And to make sure everyone in the room heard it,” I said. He smiled again and shrugged.

In other cities around the Czech Republic that fall, I fielded questions that included other conspiracy theories about NATO, the European Union, or Ukraine (or all three together); the movement of American nuclear weapons; criticism of the Western outrage at Russia for seizing Crimea; and other topics that seemed to be pulled right off of trashy websites. I began to see why other members of my various audiences (usually university-age young people) were pessimistic: In a country where Russian propaganda fell from the skies like electronic acid rain and oozed from computers like sludge from a cracked sewer pipe, how could ordinary citizens ever make informed decisions?

At the time, the Czech government was led by a pro-Russian president, Miloš Zeman, who was soon to be joined in the government by a populist prime minister, Andrej Babiš. A billionaire, Babiš campaigned on the high-minded slogan that “everybody steals” and vowed to run the government like a company. (That should sound familiar to American voters who had to listen to similar cynical bloviations from Donald Trump for so many years.) Zeman won a second term in 2018, and Babiš remained prime minister until late 2021. Pro-Western sentiment in the Czech Republic, as well as in other former Warsaw Pact nations that had since joined NATO, looked to be fizzling out.

Last month, Babiš not only lost his bid for the Czech presidency but also lost it to Petr Pavel, a retired Czech general who once held a senior position in NATO’s military leadership. Pavel is a newcomer to politics, but he clobbered Babiš—who by sheer virtue of name recognition and money should have been the favorite—garnering 58 percent of the vote in an election with a record 70 percent turnout. That’s not a squeaker; that’s a repudiation. Babiš, especially when faced with the coronavirus pandemic, was lousy at governing, as populists almost always are. But the Russian onslaught against Ukraine also seemed to break the spell for many Czechs, and this election is likely one more example of Vladimir Putin’s brutality in Ukraine undoing years of the careful propaganda that once bolstered Russia’s position in the world.

Pavel’s career began in the Czechoslovak military, where he was a member of the Communist Party. (This caused some griping and cheap shots among his opponents, but a young officer joining the Party as a matter of course was an expected part of a military career in those days.) After 1990, Pavel served in a United Nations peacekeeping mission and later as the chairman of NATO’s military committee, the top military body in the Atlantic Alliance.

If you want a sense of his campaign, one of his signs said, “Enough of chaos. I offer order and dignity.” (Again, millions of American voters can probably relate.) His views are an about-face from those of figures such Zeman and Babiš; he is proud of Czech aid to Ukraine and has said that the Ukrainians now “really deserve” NATO membership. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever, but it is refreshing to see a government in Prague taking the regime in Moscow seriously as a mortal threat.

This is all good news not only for the Western allies but for democracy itself. Nevertheless, Pavel and the leaders of other democracies still have a full plate. The Czech presidency has some influence as a national symbol, but the Republic is a parliamentary system in which executive power rests with the prime minister (currently the center-right politician Petr Fiala). And in a classic Trumpy move, Babiš issued this ominous farewell: “Forget Babiš. Try to live without Babiš. Stop waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night feeling hatred for Babiš.” What this likely means, of course, is that Babiš—who still commands significant political and material resources—will be back.

Likewise, the move to the populist right is not over in neighboring Poland. And Viktor Orbán still rules Hungary, attended by a circle of American courtiers who believe he is the future of post-liberalism. (One of his admirers, Rod Dreher, just made the foolish mistake of accidentally reporting the truth: He publicized some of Orbán’s creepy pro-Russian and anti–European Union comments, and then backtracked quickly.)

Still, the Czech diplomat Petr Tuma (now in residence at the Atlantic Council, in Washington) is right to note that Pavel’s win “seems to follow a tide turning against global populism, including the defeats of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa.” We could add the American 2022 midterm elections to this list.

It’s been a tough few years for democracy, but populist leaders—as they almost inevitably do—are now reminding voters that they never have very much to offer beyond angry slogans, mistrust, and paranoia. (These days, many of them also have Putin’s war hanging around their neck.) The Czech presidential election is one more reminder that when voters decide in favor of freedom and decency, and then actually show up at the polls, democracy wins.


Today’s News

  1. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was removed from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a vote supported by the GOP House majority.
  2. The U.S. is increasing its military presence in the Philippines as part of an effort to counter China and prepare for a possible conflict over Taiwan.
  3. More than 15 million people in the Northeast are under wind-chill warnings or advisories, with potentially record-low temperatures expected starting tomorrow.

Evening Read

A memorial for Tyre Nichols in Boston
Joseph Prezioso / AFP / Getty

Tyre Nichols Wanted to Capture the Sunset

By Clint Smith

Vincent van Gogh’s painting Willows at Sunset is a dazzling kaleidoscope of twilight. The canvas is awash in orange and yellow brushstrokes, as if the painter meant to depict the world ablaze. An asymmetrical sun hovers in the background while beams of light shoot across the sky. Terra-cotta grass leans in the wind that I imagine van Gogh felt slide across his cheek. Three pollarded willows rise up from the earth and bend like bodies frozen mid-dance. Shades of black expand across their barren trunks, as if they are about to be swallowed by the oncoming night.

The piece, painted in 1888, wasn’t originally meant to be shared with the world. The wide brushstrokes on the canvas have led art historians to believe that van Gogh painted the image quickly, perhaps as a sketch for another work—the artist’s attempt to capture the majesty of a sunset before it slipped beyond the horizon.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, and Kristen Cui hide behind a cabin door in "Knock at the Cabin."
Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, and Kristen Cui in "Knock at the Cabin" (Phobymo / Universal Pictures)

Read. Elaine Hsieh Chou’s new short story, “Background.”

“Gene knew parents could be withholding, cold, distant. He didn’t know children could be too.”

Watch. M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin infuses a ludicrous horror concept with a healthy dose of tenderness.

Play our daily crossword.


If you’ve never been to Prague, it’s a wonderful place and one of my favorite cities. It’s also, arguably, where the Soviet empire began its slide into oblivion. In early 1968, reformers in the then-Czechoslovak leadership took over the government (thus giving us the term “Prague Spring” that we now apply to other uprisings). In August, Soviet tanks moved in and crushed the whole project, causing many of the men and women in the old Eastern bloc, and in the U.S.S.R. itself, to doubt their faith in Moscow and the future of Soviet communism. One of the best books on this, Nightfrost in Prague, was written by one of the officials who was forcibly taken to the Kremlin, but unfortunately, it’s out of print and kind of hard to get.

A former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, however, wrote a book in 2018 titled The Last Palace, which is a good introduction to the city and its history—and even its architecture, too, as it is told through the notable history of the ambassador’s residence. Eisen is known to news junkies as a regular commenter on cable news; he was the special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 2019 to 2020, including during Trump’s impeachment. The history of Central Europe can get a bit chewy for a general reader; instead, give The Last Palace a read—but beware of the urge it will instill in you to go and walk along the Charles Bridge.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.