Another huge anti-governmental demonstration was held on Prague’s Wenceslas Square on 11 March, with people filling Prague’s second-largest square almost completely. They gathered there to protest against “poverty” in the first place. The protest was organised by a relatively new political entity, the PRO party of lawyer Jindřich Rajchl.
Concerns about poverty resonated at the demonstration with fears of war and calls for peace, which are linked to the Czech Republic’s unprecedented social, political and military support for Ukraine and, above all, the current government’s war rhetoric, which raises fears of a spiral towards uncontrolled escalation. Why are people in the Czech Republic protesting against “poverty”? And why are they doing so under the banners of political entities that can be considered not only politically marginal but sometimes very peculiar and clearly quite conservative?
Why are people afraid of poverty?
The Czech Republic is perceived as one of the most stable economies in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the country has recently faced serious social and economic problems threatening the most stable element of the Czech “success story” – the relatively strong lower middle class and the industrial production platform (predominantly based on cheap labour and cheap energies).
Recently, Czechia experienced the third-highest inflation in the European Union, coupled with an unprecedented drop in real incomes last year, unseen since the transformational recession of the 1990s. Czech statisticians also confirmed earlier this year that the Czech economy is technically in recession, and its main source is unsurprisingly low household consumption.
In the past year, the Czechs had to get used to price shocks, for example, when the country’s energy prices rose by the most in the EU – by 62% year-on-year. The energy crisis in the Czech context started at the end of 2021, when several gas suppliers collapsed, leaving many households to face very high gas bills (in some cases, the advance payments exceeded the households’ financial possibilities several times over) under alternative “emergency” supplies. It turned out that one of the leading causes was excessive market deregulation and state inaction.
The war in Ukraine was, therefore, just a continuation of the trend of high energy prices in the country.
Equally painful is the rise in the price of basic foodstuffs, which seems to have no end. Most recently, comparative statistics revealed that basic foodstuffs such as eggs in the Czech Republic became the most expensive in the EU in 2022: while eggs rose by 30% in the bloc, it was 85% (sic!) in Czechia. The prices of bread, butter and even the national drink, beer, rose significantly.
Just a few days ago, the Minister of Agriculture Zdeněk Nekula (KDU-ČSL) admitted that traders in the Czech Republic were “testing” what customers could withstand regarding food prices: “Some traders were testing what customers could withstand. If – whether it’s apples, onions – the trade margin is 100 or 200 per cent, it’s over the edge.” The minister promised that an inter-ministerial committee would look into the situation when it meets on March 21. Still, he did not explain how it was even possible that such unfair practice had been tolerated for so long.
The government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala is following neoliberal economic prescriptions of non-intervention, privatisation and austerity.
Especially Fiala’s party ODS is known for its repeated attacks against the Czech welfare system in the past. While many middle- and lower-income households have been struggling for months, the current government sees as a priority such contradictory things as reducing the state budget deficit, increasing military spending and reforming the pension system.
In recent months, there have also been clear signs that the government is planning changes to the tax structure, which contradicts its pre-election promises. It seems the government seeks to abolish tax exceptions (such as tax exemption for trade union membership payments) and to enlarge taxation of labour and employees. The progressive tax or taxation of the rich or corporations is not on the table.
Government politicians have also begun to propose pension reform, arguing that current pensioners are impoverishing future generations and the country cannot afford it. The main reform idea so far revolves around raising the retirement age to 68 for people under 40. In this case, it is good to add that pensions in the Czech republic are ridiculously low, and the country spends a below-average share of GDP in the EU comparison.
According to statistics, Czechs today enjoy good health up to the age of 61-62 years. So, even though the age of life is increasing (or, more precisely, it was until the pandemic), most Czechs get ill from the age of 62 (the retirement age is now 65 for many). Finally, pensioners are a significant electorate of the opposition ANO party of billionaire Andrej Babiš, who was the first to increase pensions significantly (to the current average – see further) and did not continue the policy of generational conflict.
The Fiala government returned to the politics of generational conflict, a typical feature of Czech neoliberals. Only last week, the ruling parties pushed through a reduction of the June pension indexation under constitutionally very strange conditions. The indexation reduction proposal was adopted under an arbitrarily declared ‘legislative emergency’. Given that the current coalition has a majority in the lower house and the Senate, there is no brake on such moves. Unfortunately, the parliamentary opposition (ANO and SPD) is proving incompetent and fragmented. Thus, pensions will increase by only CZK 760 instead of the planned CZK 1770, if the newle elected president Petr Pavel signs the bill. At the same time, government politicians have suggested that the indexations are to the detriment of working families with children. The average pension in the Czech Republic in 2021 was CZK 15 400 (about 650 euros).
Moreover, the Czech Republic has experienced an unprecedented shortage of important medicines over the last few months.
This included such medicines as antibiotics and medicines against fever for children. The health minister Vlastimil Válek (TOP 09) could not solve this situation, but he explained that the shortage is not due to bad planning practices but because “people are more sick” after the pandemic. At the same time, Válek already proposed the possible contours of health system reform – introducing double standards in the Czech health system. This is yet another “evergreen” of Czech neoliberals. Such a measure would mean a dualisation of the health system according to wealth. The critique of this proposal was so strong that prime-minister Fiala had to explain that no such reform was planned.
Certainly, the current situation is affecting Czech citizens in different ways, and it seems that there are enough people who do not feel the problems yet, are happy to be frugal and believe in a better future that the proposed reforms are supposed to guarantee. After all, the ruling parties still have the majority support of the electorate, as the latest poll of voter preferences shows.
But there are other polls too.
The recent one from SANEP showed that almost 55% of respondents fear expressing their opinion today, mainly because they fear being fired from their jobs or other disciplinary measures. Almost 60% of respondents have experienced censorship, and around 25% answered “yes” and 31% “rather yes” to the question if there is censorship in the country.
The main reasons for this will include the information policy of the current government, which has dangerously moved towards McCarthyism practices. Indeed, the vaguely defined fight against disinformation and the influence of Russia and China easily becomes a tool to suppress criticism of the current government decisions or to silence any alternatives to government policies. After all, Prime Minister Petr Fiala has long used the war in Ukraine as an argument, for example, for the government’s inaction or sluggishness in dealing with a severe crisis. For months, Fiala has been telling citizens that “they are at war” with Putin, which was supposed to mean, in effect, that he and his government are essentially off the hook, even though he also frequently repeats that “they (government) won’t let anyone fall”.
However, the parameters of the current government’s economic and social policies are significantly against the interests of a huge part of the Czech population, regardless of whether they are or are not aware of this. This applies not only to sluggish regulation of the cost-of-living crisis but also to incompetent tax and pension reform, austerity policy, social welfare policy, and strategic issues such as the unsustainability of the current Czech economic model. But beyond that, the coalition is increasingly proving to be a threat to Czech democracy. Not only is it opening the door to censorship and authoritarian practices that restrict freedom of speech and research (both enshrined in the constitution), but it is also already resorting to dubious and arbitrary steps in pushing through law in parliament to advance its political goals.
Why are the protests not led by the left?
People clearly have ample reason to express their concerns about impoverishment, gradual militarisation that normalises war and repression, threats to freedom of speech, and even to the right to be a political opposition. In theory, we would expect the left political parties – the centre-left Social Democrats, the radical left communists and the recently formed and also radically profiled Left Party (Levice) – to be the main spokespersons in this struggle. This is not the case.
Like the previous ones, the latest demonstration was organised by entities and politicians from the conservative part of the political spectrum (or the Czech version of “alt-right”). In this case by the PRO (Právo-Respekt-Odbornost – Right-Respect-Expertise) party, a kind of spin-off of the conservative right-wing Trikolóra.
The main programmatic point of PRO is “Czech Republic first”. The denominator of the protest mobilisation success is that these movements criticise the current government from more or less illiberal positions and highlight the social problems that plague the people, along with the sovereignty discourses (i.e. sovereignty as a nationalist discourse and sovereignty as a democratic discourse). At the same time, their success is helped by a weakened and marginalised left, which has ended up outside parliament and, in many things, is failing to convince voters that it represents their interests and it is not just a co-opted “left” that plays to the (neo)liberals’ notes (a fate that has befallen the Social Democrats, and not without reason). In the case of the Communist Party (KSČM), the party’s exhaustion was due to its former leadership’s inability to reform and rejuvenate the party while doing everything possible to move it towards the political mainstream through its support for the government of Andrej Babiš, which in my opinion corresponded above all to the personal interests of the party’s former leadership. The Left Party- Levice (and possibly other small entities such as Budoucnost) does not have the means to reach out to the mass of voters due to its lack of resources (including organisational) and opportunities.
But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that all those gathered on Wenceslas Square in Prague on Saturday share the same views as those on the podium and represent truly right-wing conservatives, conspirators or a bunch of radicals clashing with riot police because of the Ukrainian flag on the National museum (as did happen on the protest day).
The protesters, in my observation, represent a very differently-minded group of people with different political accents and values.
In fact, the demonstration has shown no political and ideological unity between the organisers and the people beyond their oppositional attitude against the current government again. One of the participants commented: “The speakers on the podium were talking about one thing, while the square about another thing.”
The government has no reason to take these people seriously. They are a bunch of pro-Putin “dezolát” (Czech slang for “a homeless person”) and “scum” or “mob”, as pro-governmental media do not forget to repeat contemptuously. Instead, the government will, similarly to the traders in Czech supermarkets, test what people can withstand in the tradition of shock therapy, which lies in the foundations of the modern Czech Republic and governing political parties (especially ODS).
Already now, it seems that the government lives in some different country. Vít Rakušan (STAN), the Interior Minister of the current government, has already told the protesters on his Twitter account, “… our state has enough functional tools to face the threat of poverty in the form of a robust social system. It does not leave anyone without help and is far from being used by all who are entitled to it.” Oh really, Mr Minister?