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Entrepreneur touts power to the people as cure for Czech ills

Popular part-Japanese TV celebrity poised to lead his party into parliament, polls show

by Jonathan Crane

Special To The Japan Times

To his critics, Tomio Okamura blows a lot of hot air and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. To his supporters, he embodies the no-nonsense, can-do approach they feel is needed to improve life in the Czech Republic.

Never out of the spotlight for long, Japan-born Okamura is leading the party he founded in May, Dawn of Direct Democracy, into this weekend’s Czech general election. Current polls suggest the party will surpass the 5 percent threshold required to enter parliament.

“It is necessary to strengthen democratic elements and change the electoral system,” Okamura said in an interview with The Japan Times. “At the moment, we have a political system that is extremely unstable and doesn’t encourage politicians to be responsible.”

With the Czech economy stung by a recession that lasted for six consecutive quarters — a record in central Europe — Dawn has gained momentum in recent weeks, capitalizing on a wave of voter anger. Many people here are fed up with spending cuts, rising unemployment and what they perceive as a low standard of living.

“There’s a large degree of dissatisfaction in the Czech Republic with traditional party politics,” said Jiří Pehe, an independent political analyst. “Okamura says all the right things. He doesn’t mince his words and he speaks in the kind of language people who are upset with politics want to hear. He is simply a very charismatic presenter of certain views.”

According to a recent survey, Okamura — whose mother is Czech and whose father hails from Minamiuonuma, Niigata Prefecture — ranks as the third-most-popular politician in the country with an approval rating of 46 percent. That level of popularity is hardly surprising, though, given his near-omnipresence in Czech life.

He has previously featured as one of the investors on “Den D,” the Czech version of the U.K. reality show “Dragon’s Den,” and has authored books on a range of topics, from politics and governance to self-help and cookery.

In keeping with his roots, the self-made entrepreneur also owns a successful travel agency that brings Japanese tourists to the Czech Republic and a boutique selling the latest in Harajuku fashion. More bizarrely, he once ran a service where customers could send their cuddly toys to Prague and have them photographed in front of the city’s landmarks (sadly, that business failed). To say his CV is varied would be an understatement.

It is all a far cry from Okamura’s somewhat difficult childhood, which alternated between Japan and what was then Czechoslovakia. Growing up, he encountered discrimination in both countries because of his mixed ethnicity. With his post-college career options in Tokyo — where he was disparagingly called a gaijin (foreigner) — consequently limited, he was forced to work as a garbage collector and sell popcorn at a cinema. Okamura says that period has influenced his politics.

“I fought racism by always trying to be better than those who spat at me because of my Caucasian-Asian origins. I also spent some time in an orphanage,” he said, when his mother got ill. “Therefore, I am focused on solidarity and social sensitivity.”

The 41-year-old’s first foray into politics came in 2012 when he was elected to the Czech Senate. He immediately used that platform to launch what would turn out to be a fateful presidential campaign just a few months later.

Needing 50,000 signatures to enter the race, he was disqualified after checks found that many of the petition entries were duplicated. More embarrassing still, others were simply made up or, in a few cases, belonged to dead people. Okamura filed a complaint over the recalculated total but the country’s highest court threw out his case.

As to whether the debacle has damaged his credibility, Okamura is philosophical. “My popularity diminished with my entry into politics, but it has nothing to do with the presidential election, and even less with my being unconstitutionally and fraudulently deprived of the possibility to run,” he said.

In his party’s manifesto, Okamura stresses the need for change. He has pledged to give voters more say in the running of the country, including a referendum on the further transfer of Czech sovereign powers to the European Union. He wants more money directed to the elderly and low-income families, and has also promised to reduce value-added tax rates and excise duty on fuel.

There is arguably a touch of the Robin Hood about him — taking from the political and social elites to give back to the poor and under-served — but Okamura denies his policies are based simply on populism.

“My critics blame me for something I don’t do,” he said. “Of course, we are against the rich being recipients of subsidies and think the state should only support those who can’t help themselves. But we want to start a continuous trend of tax cuts, which should lower prices and reduce the need to redistribute wealth. Therefore, our fundamental principle is to take less from all people.”

This weekend’s elections were triggered when former Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ center-right coalition collapsed amid a spying and corruption scandal in June. A government of technocrats has governed in the interim, despite failing to gain the support of MPs in a confidence vote more than two months ago.

At the center of the scandal is Nečas’ one-time chief of staff and lover, Jana Nagyova, whom he married in September. She is accused of ordering Czech intelligence services to spy on civilians, including Nečas’ ex-wife, and of bribing three MPs. They were allegedly offered lucrative positions in state-run companies in return for cooperating with the government on a controversial tax bill going through parliament.

In light of all this, Okamura is calling for more transparency in the work of elected officials, judges and prosecutors. He wants to see reform of the procurement system for public projects, maintaining this can only be achieved through direct democracy, the cornerstone of Dawn’s manifesto.

“In a direct democracy, it is the voters who represent a safeguard against the mistakes of politicians,” he said. “They are far more responsible than any politician. We can illustrate this with examples from the Czech Republic — our citizens would never have tolerated such bad laws that have allowed the siphoning-off of public money without direct responsibility.”

Pointing to Switzerland as a political role model, Okamura — who is also a fan of the presidential system in the United States — wants citizens to be able to decide which laws get passed and which politicians get hired or fired. However, analysts say that plan just isn’t feasible.

“I think Americans would be surprised at what Okamura considers to be a U.S. system, and I am afraid that Czechs would be surprised, too, if he got the opportunity to push through his ideas,” said Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University in Prague. “Dawn is not a party with a systematic program. It is just one for use in this election, mostly a product of media and market propaganda.”

Meanwhile, some argue that Okamura’s anti-corruption drive has been undermined by a decision to allow disgraced businessman-turned-politician Vit Barta to join Dawn. Barta was the bankroller and de facto leader of Public Affairs (VV), a party that stormed into government on the back of an anti-graft ticket in 2010. But things soon went downhill for Barta and VV after he was charged with buying the loyalty of fellow party members.

Although Barta was eventually acquitted on appeal, the damage was done, and VV disintegrated earlier this year. Seeking to diffuse the negative publicity, Okamura says his new colleague has been unfairly singled out by the media.

“It’s no risk” having Barta on the party list, he said. “It comes down to what voters prefer. But if we have to choose between popularity and writing off a decent man who helped this country implement, for example, the law against unscrupulous debt collectors, then we opt for the second choice.”

Perhaps most detrimental to Okamura’s campaign, though, are comments he made in a blog post earlier this year, in which he said Roma, or Gypsies, should found their own state, and that the Czech Republic should support their return to the country of their ancestors.

The politician dismisses any accusations of racism, saying he doesn’t see “anything extremist in the idea of a Romany state” because “every nation has an ambition to create its own state.”

But according to Pehe, such statements could prove to be his undoing.

“It is a strange thing for someone who’s an immigrant and only half Czech to be promoting Czech nationalist policies to some extent,” he said. “And that’s Okamura’s weakness. His rhetoric appeals to some voters, but at the same time it’s so extreme on some issues that he shuts the door on any kind of coalition that he could work in.”

“A lot of voters like him as a spokesman for their views, but a large number of the very same people probably feel what he says is not politically usable. There is a gap there, and he pays the price for it.”

Irrespective of the outcome of the election, though, it doesn’t look like Okamura will be leaving the Czech Republic for Japan again anytime soon. He says he has only visited his country of birth once in the last 20 years, staying for just five days, and now considers Europe his home.

“I lived in Japan for only a fraction of my life — nine years altogether,” he said. “I like Japan, but I have my family and friends here. I entered Czech politics because of my family. I feel an obligation to do it for some time at least, to contribute to a better life for all of us.”

On Saturdays, Telling Lives profiles interesting individuals with links to Japan. Send all your comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.