PASOHLÁVKY, CZECH REPUBLIC - Crowds of students are dancing in a large tent. It is dark inside, the only lights are disco effects that illuminate the place from time to time. There is no music blasting, yet the students move to catchy funky tunes as the sound is being transmitted to the headphones on their heads. A DJ with afro hairstyle and sunglasses is rocking this silent disco party.
His name is Dominik Feri, he is 21 and he is a rising star of Czech politics. Feri seeks election to the lower chamber of the Czech parliament in the upcoming elections at the end of October as a candidate for the centre-right TOP 09 party. His visit of to the joint get-to-know event for fresh students of several universities in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, is part of his campaign.
Feri says that so far his main goal was not political campaigning but simply getting young people to vote. Young Czechs are the second least enthusiastic about politics among OECD countries. According to an OECD report from 2016, more than half of the Czechs between 15 and 29 do are not at all interested in politics.
Students before their twenties, who do not follow politics on a regular basis, are exactly Feri’s target group. In the last two years, Feri visited over 120 schools giving students “lectures”, as he calls them, about politics. Lectures usually consist of a series of political memes, jokes and anecdotes from Czech politics. “You have to catch the audience’s attention in the first minute of the speech. Jokes are great for that. If you don’t win them over from the very beginning, then you’ve lost them for good,” Feri reveals his method.
Aleš Urbánek, a twenty-year-old future law student, liked Feri’s lecture. “Dominik really knows what he is talking about,” Urbánek. He did not mind the memes and even considered voting for Feri’s party.
Feri is treading on thin ice, as law bans political campaigning at schools. “I never tell them to vote for TOP 09,” Feri said. “I am just trying to make politics as accessible as possible for to everyone”.
But Matěj Poulíček, a 19-year-old engineering student, who attended Feri’s lecture at the ice-breaking event of the Brno universities, did not see it as unbiased. “I don’t think it’s fair that only one politician came to speak about politics. It wasn’t impartial. It was clear from his jokes who is he against, he said.
Otto Eibl, a political scientist at the brno-based masaryk university, said that Feri’s style poses yet another problem.“Feri uses the genuine language of his peers on Facebook, he said. But his style may be too jovial for a politician. “He tries to be funny at any cost. Sometimes it feels forced,” he said.
Yet, in February, Feri the second-year law student appeared on the list of the European politicians who should “make Europe great again” compiled by the German newspaper DIE WELT.
Feri was elected to the municipal in Teplice, town in northern Czech Republic at the age of 18. He was the spa town’s youngest assemblyman and still a high school student.
At the height of the anti-migrant hysteria during the summer of 2015, he was one of a few local politicians willing to address the tensions between the locals and the spa‘s Arab visitors. “That really made a difference. By the end of the summer, people outside Prague started to notice me too,” said the young politician who is wildly popular on social media. Over 77 thousand people follow him on Facebook and over 42 thousand people on Instagram.
Indeed, students do not consider him a typical politician. Feri, who is usually wearing a vintage suit, comes across as a gregarious classmate who shares the concerns and interests of his audience. They don’t hesitate to discuss with him their ambitions, personal matters or simply which place is best to buy wine in.
Clothing is not the only thing that sets him apart from most of his peers. Feri’s grandfather came to Czechoslovakia from Ethiopia. Being a mixed-race politician in such a racially homogeneous country can be a challenge in itself. Feri said, though, that Czechs are not racist as a nation. “I’ve never faced day-to-day racism. The internet is, of course, a whole different thing,” he said.
Feri’s party, the center-right TOP 09, is eager to use his appeal among youngest voters. “Politics needs its substance and ideas but it also needs an attractive salesman. If you want to sell something, you should make it as attractive as possible,” the party’s chairman Miroslav Kalousek said.
In the Czech Republic, as well as in many other post-communist countries, it is not unlikely for right-wing parties to get support of younger generations. They have been associated with progress, reforms, and social liberalism during the political and economical transformation after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989.
At 17 percent, TOP 09 fares second among high-school students, according to MEDIAN agency survey from this year. However, it is more conservative than its young voters when it comes to gay marriage or marijuana legalization. While Feri posted on instagram a picture of himself signing a pro same-sex marriage petition, Miroslav Kalousek said that “family has no alternative” and described gay marriage activists as holding “extremist views”.
Some accuse Feri of whitewashing the TOP 09’s conservative policies and luring the youth into voting for a party that doesn’t represent them. “My opinions are different from those considered mainstream in TOP 09. However, in case I make it into the parliament, I will support my agenda, e.g. same sex marriage,” Feri said.
“He may be more liberal than the party’s mainstream but that’s perfectly normal,” Jiří Pehe, a political analyst who heads the New York University’s prague branch, said. Eibl agrees. “His divergences with the party are not systemic. They all believe in a strong EU, for example. It also simply reflects the fact the party’s voters are in many cases more liberal than the party’s platform,” he said.
Whether Feri enters parliament remains open until all votes are counted after the october 20-21 election. He has the last spot on his party’s prague district ballot but counts on his young followers to move him up through so-called preferential voting, in which voters circle candidates they would like to see in the house.
When asked if he expects his internet popularity to transform into political support, he avoids a clear answer. “I really don’t know. Likes are not votes,” he said.
Title foto credit: Dominik Feri