For a brief period during last month’s Czech election campaign it seemed like the country was heading toward a Czexit referendum. Prime Minister Andrej Babis was desperately looking for a coalition partner and the Eurosceptic Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party had insisted on a referendum as part of any deal. In the end, the Czech PM couldn’t scrape together a majority, meaning a pro-EU coalition will take over this month. But it was still nothing short of remarkable for the country to come so close to holding a referendum on its EU membership.
The leader of the SPD, Tomio Okamura, was the key figure behind this push for an EU referendum. And while the latest election represents a setback for the Czech Eurosceptic movement, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the story isn’t over for this most colourful and eccentric politician, who may well be the Czech Republic’s answer to Nigel Farage.
Okamura is far from your average Czech. Born in Tokyo to a Moravian mother and a Japanese-Korean father, he moved to the small Bohemian town of Mašťov at the age of ten, spending part of his childhood in an orphanage. After finishing school he returned to Japan for a short time, working as a bin man and selling popcorn in a cinema; he then moved back to Prague at the age of 21, where he began a long business career of varied interests and eccentric enterprises before entering politics.
Okamura’s business ventures made much of his own background. He ran a travel agency specifically for Japanese tourists visiting the Czech Republic, and created companies bringing Japanese food, household goods and fashion to Czechs. At the same time he started to pursue his political ambitions by penning a number of books with weighty titles such as The Art of Governing, The Art of Living, and The Art of Direct Democracy, and The Great Japanese Cookbook for good measure.
One of Okamura’s more famous ventures before he entered politics was his leading role in establishing the world’s first ever travel agency for cuddly toys. For €90 or more, clients could pay for their teddy bears to be whisked away for photoshoots in front of the world’s most famous tourist landmarks. The creators of the enterprise described themselves as 'deadly serious' about the project, but the company later went into liquidation.
This hare-brained scheme was the result of Okamura’s stint as an investor on the Czech Republic’s version of Dragon’s Den, which established him in the Czech public consciousness and served as the springboard for his later political activities. It’s easy to draw a parallel with Donald Trump’s own career as a TV personality before running for office – a similarity made even clearer by Okamura’s almost Trumpian lack of self-effacement: his autobiography was entitled The Czech Dream.
Okamura has certainly shown throughout his long business career that he thinks outside the box. Perhaps that explains how he saw a gap in the political market when he founded his first Eurosceptic political party in 2013, called Dawn of Direct Democracy. Two years later the party split and Okamura founded the SPD party. Since then Okamura has transformed himself into one of the Czech Republic’s most important – and divisive – political figures.
His timing for an anti-EU party couldn’t have been better. Polls increasingly show a high level of dissatisfaction about EU membership in the Czech Republic. Poland and Hungary may talk tough when it comes to Brussels interventionism, but public perceptions of the bloc are far more negative in the Czech Republic than in those miscreant member states. A recent poll suggested 52 per cent of the Czech population is unhappy with EU membership – a similar split as in the UK before the Brexit vote. Still, whether the country would actually vote for Czexit is another matter; in another survey asking whether the country should remain a member of the EU, two-thirds of Czechs agreed.
Yet declining popularity for Brussels has coincided with attempts by the bloc to intervene more forcefully in member states’ internal affairs, something seen as particularly problematic in central and eastern European countries where drastic cultural changes in western Europe are viewed with anxiety.
Culture is a bigger concern than political sovereignty in Czech objections to the EU. For Petr Mach, the founder of Free, a Eurosceptic group which preceded the SPD, and a current member of another Eurosceptic party called Trikolóra, sovereignty ‘isn’t mentioned that often, but it is there between the lines of cultural arguments. Eurosceptics in the Czech Republic oppose migration and the LGBT agenda; and they understand that the main problem is the power of the EU in these areas.’
Multiculturalism and migration are among the main concerns of Czech Eurosceptics, so it may come as a surprise that the current leader of the movement is one of the country's few ethnic minority politicians. But Okamura’s issue with multiculturalism is not so much about the arrival of foreign nationals, as a growing emphasis on state promotion of foreign cultures which he believes is detrimental to Czech identity and prosperity. ‘I am a politician paid by Czech taxpayers and I will defend Czech citizens. If someone wants to defend Africans with Czech money, they can go to Africa,’ he said in one interview ahead of this year’s election.
If anything Okamura has embraced his Japanese background. He has posed with a samurai sword and a Japanese headband, and he has never struggled to reconcile his dual nationality with his political beliefs. And while it may seem ironic that Okamura has also held high positions in the Czech tourism and travel trade, and was even appointed ambassador for the 'European Year of Intercultural Dialogue' organised by the EU in 2008, for him these topics are separate from the SPD's conception of multiculturalism. ‘When someone falls in love with a partner from another country or travels the world as a tourist, this isn’t the ideology of multiculturalism,’ he has argued.
Regardless of his true motivations, under his watch the SPD has rapidly established itself as one of the Czech Republic’s most popular individual parties, with stable support from around 10 per cent of voters. As well as leaving the EU, the party's programme includes toughening up immigration procedures, making sure ‘manifestations of radical Islam’ are prosecuted, doing away with positive discrimination, and cutting back the welfare state to prioritise working people.
Okamura will have been disappointed by his party’s failure to gain more ground in the elections held last month; but as Mach notes, the party may have actually suffered after other parties embraced the SPD’s Eurosceptic policies:
“A strong manifestation of increased Czech Euroscepticism is the fact that the movement has now become rooted in mainstream politics. Czech governments tend to oppose the EU’s migration quotes and the adoption of the euro, and many MPs are against the bloc’s Green Deal too.
The outgoing Prime Minister Andrej Babiš led what some described as the 'Orbánisation' of the Czech Republic in the run-up to October’s election, driven at least in part by his fear of losing voters to the SPD. Sensing the possibility that his party could become kingmakers after the vote, Okamura set a referendum on EU membership as a condition of entering any potential coalition government.
In the end that was not to be – but in making Euroscepticism part of the Czech political mainstream, Okamura has already partly achieved his goal. Pro-EU parties now shy away from openly expressing support for EU policies, fearing that aligning themselves too closely with Brussels would be political suicide. For this reason, the anticipated swing back towards the EU by the Czech Republic’s new coalition is likely to be underwhelming; indeed, the coalition has already confirmed its opposition to migrant quotas and adopting the Euro, two of the main stumbling blocks to closer EU integration up until now.
Parties running on a Eurosceptic platform – including Babiš’s ANO – picked up around 50 per cent of the vote in October. The election seemed to make it clear that large portions of the Czech population see the country’s current relations with Brussels as unacceptable. Okamura is a popular figurehead for this movement even among members of smaller Eurosceptic parties, who see his media savvy attitude and ability to articulate the sentiments underpinning their cause as invaluable.
The mould of Czech politics has clearly been broken by the colourful figure of Okamura. It remains to be seen if this can translate into political power for the SPD leader – but as Nigel Farage showed in the UK, the ultimate aim of the Eurosceptic movement, an EU referendum, could be brought about without hardline Eurosceptics actually gaining power. If there is ever a referendum on the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU, it seems clear that Okamura will be the one to bring it about.