September’s Czech Republic First! demonstrations combined legitimate concerns about the cost of living with pro-Kremlin propaganda. But the Czech PM’s wholesale dismissal of the protesters as Putin’s stooges could not conceal a genuine policy failure.
To understand the seriousness of the recent anti-government protests in Prague, one needs to rewind a bit. It’s been nearly a year since the billionaire Andrej Babiš and his party, the Dissatisfied Citizens’ Action (ANO), lost the Czech parliamentary elections. Together with his coalition partner, the Social Democrats (ČSSD), Babiš was defeated (just barely) by a disparate bloc of five parties, ranging from the liberal centre-left Czech Pirate Party to the conservative centre-right Christian Democrats. Headed by the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), this shaky five-party coalition ran and won on an explicitly anti-corruption, anti-Babiš ticket.
The lion’s share of the work necessary to mobilize voters against Babiš was carried out by the Million Moments for Democracy movement led by a young, inspiring student called Mikuláš Minář. All the arduous work of enlightening voters on Babiš’s secret interests and machinations, ensuring sufficient voter turnout and forging an unlikely coalition just to remove Babiš from power, bore fruit in the end. The ex-PM has recently gone on trial in an EU subsidy fraud case at the Municipal Court in Prague, even though he himself insists the trial is no more than a political witch hunt aimed at preventing him from running for Czech president in the upcoming January 2023 election.
The October 2021 elections brought in other significant changes: for the first time since 1989, the Communist Party fell short of the 5% threshold required to take seats in parliament. Other populist, nationalist movements such as Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), the Czech equivalent of the German AfD, also came out of the elections notably diminished. Less than a year ago, it therefore seemed the balance of forces in Czechia had tilted, significantly if not overwhelmingly, away from unscrupulous, corporatist populism and an anti-immigrant, anti-EU nationalist agenda to a more principled, less corrupt and safely pro-EU democratic politics.
Yet even this cautiously hopeful take on where Czechs may be headed after ten years of Babišism looks too optimistic now. On 3 September, seventy thousand (if not more) gathered at Wenceslas Square in Prague to demand ‘Czechs First’. So it seems the anti-EU populists, nationalists and pro-Russian agitators are back in force, even if only in the streets and not in the parliament (yet). How did that happen?
This article was originally published at Eurozine, 21 October 2022.
The Autor: Alena Dvořáková
published: 14. 11. 2022