Resentment over the sharp rise in inflation and the influx of refugees is fueling support for illiberal populists.
A year after seizing power on a wave of civic activism, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s coalition government is beleaguered by a decidedly uncivic uprising, and a populist backlash threatens the stability of the Czech Republic and European politics wider.
On September 3, a crowd of 50,000 to 70,000 protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Unlike the 1989 protests against communism and the large rallies in support of the rule of law in 2019, the crowds were galvanized by soaring energy prices and the warm welcome of the Czech Republic over 350,000 Ukrainian refugees. The event was organized by extremists, including far-right groups and the Communist Party, many of which are both pro-Russian and opposed to joining the European Union (EU), NATO and the World Health Organization (WHO). The demonstrators demanded the resignation of the government for not having ensured food and energy self-sufficiency and for having “diluted the national stock” with refugees.
Prime Minister Fiala’s government took power a year ago leading a five-party coalition, spurred by a surge of civic activism to defeat billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis, and his party, ANO. From 2018 to 2021, the civic group Million Moments of Democracy events organized versus Babis and in favor of liberal democracy, culminating in June 2019, when 250,000 people gathered at Letna Park in Prague. The opposition benefited from the increase in voter turnout and won in October 2021. Many smaller parties failed to cross the 5% voter support threshold and for the first time since 1989, no party of left won a seat in Parliament. As a result, more than a million voices, mostly less well-off Czechs, are currently unrepresented.
The lack of concrete government action to counter inflation and rising energy prices – which together have doubled the percentage of Czechs below the poverty line – combined with tangible aid for Ukrainian refugees, have created an ideal breeding ground for the politics of resentment. Economic fear and political exclusion are at the heart of the current protests. Moreover, extremists who were already spreading conspiracy theories during the Covid-19 pandemic, further radicalized citizens with misinformation about the war in Ukraine.
The protesters come from diverse backgrounds but are united by anti-establishment sentiment. Some are radical fascists and skinheads. Others are moderates who live below the poverty line and feel abandoned by the government. There are nationalist splinter groups from the big parties, such as Habs supporters, as well as communists hoping for an electoral comeback. Another key group has been recruited from the far-right anti-vaccine counterculture. The protesters share a contempt for democracy and support Russia. Above all, they are hoping for a flow of cheap Russian gas that would alleviate their economic problems.
In this explosive situation, the government appeared deaf. The country’s parliament leader has called on citizens to keep warm in the sometimes bitterly cold Central European winter by wearing sweaters. “Two sweaters for us, everything for Ukrainians,” read many of the protesters’ banners.
Crises are opportunities for tightrope politics. Two parliamentarians were notably absent from the demonstration: Babisthe leader of the opposition, and the leader of the extreme right, Tomio Okamura. Babis is seen by protesters as part of the establishment, and the far-right Okamura as someone who is part of the system and therefore out of touch. Even so, the pair could still benefit if anti-government sentiment rises.
These last months, the billionaire leader of the ANO toured the country in a motorhome to gather support and protest against Prime Minister Fiala’s team of new arrivals. BabisThe message is familiar: it paints the government as incompetent, corrupt and unable to curb rising energy prices. Additionally, it uses increasingly incendiary language at its rallies, through its massive media appearances, as well as on Facebook and Instagram. This foments violent feelings against journalists, counter-protesters at its rallies, and especially the government.
The issues in by Babis the bids to regain power are high. If he is elected president – and if he has not yet announced his candidacy for 2023, he is clearly in the campaign – he regain immunity from criminal prosecution. His trial for an alleged €A $2 million ($2 million) EU grant fraud – which he calls a hoax – began on September 12.
Babis plays a tricky game. He excels at polarizing the electorate but avoids becoming the face of illiberal protests. His business empire at home and in the EU relies heavily on bank loans. Always pragmatic, he has no desire to become a pariah in the eyes of the dominant Western governments. He is a populist, but he has never shown affinity with Russia (although the pro-Russian president Milos Zeman backs him as his successor.) He is even taking advantage of the current economic turmoil, with inflation making his outstanding loans cheaper while his companies’ profits have outpaced inflation. However, because he fears prosecution, he does everything to undermine the fragile government coalition and slow down the courts.
Fiala’s government is a diverse group of five parties who ran on a promise not to raise taxes and to increase transparency in politics. Yet he now faces war, refugees, inflation and soaring energy prices. Two-thirds of citizens are now critical of the government. If the populists and the illiberals unite, they could well win the next elections, scheduled for 2025.
The health of Czech liberal democracy – and its historic role as a bulwark against the onslaught of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe – depends on the government’s ability to respond to economic fears and anger over political exclusion. It will take more than a sweater.
Lenka Bustikova is Associate Professor of European Union and Comparative Eastern European Politics at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on party politics, electoral behavior, clientelism and state capacity. Her 2019 book, “Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe” (Cambridge University Press) won the Davis Center Book Prize in Political and Social Studies.
Petra Guasti is Associate Professor of Democratic Theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University in Prague and Senior Researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Petra’s research focuses on the reconfiguration of the political landscape and revolves around representation, democratization and populism.