Some unholy information made the rounds of the Czech media on Holy Wednesday (April 4). The evening before, the latest in who knows how many government crises erupted, this time provoked by the hysterical outburst of Public Affairs (VV), which threatened to leave the government (and has since split in two), and the rustic humor of Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09), who attempted to shove VV de facto leader Vít Bárta’s people out of the coalition. Were it not for the level-headedness of Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) and the total capitulation of VV, preparation for early elections to Parliament in June would be underway (and it could still happen).
Fortunately for the organizers of the Week of Protests, lasting from April 15 to 21, Nečas’ three-party coalition government (ODS-TOP 09-VV) not only survived the latest crisis of its “Italian marriage” but with the votes of the temporarily pacified VV approved further measures that are “possibly painful but being taken at the right time,” as Kalousek told Novinky.cz. “We will not spend more than we can just to be popular, and we didn’t care what will happen in three of four years – après moi le deluge,” said this fine man, with an honesty all of his own.
The government’s austerity package aims to keep the public deficit below three percent of GDP in 2013 and 2014, for instance by means of lower valorization of pensions and an increase in both VAT rates and income tax. With its latest package the government offered those intending to pour onto the streets during the Week of Protests a few decent slogans for their placards.
Support of the ČSSD and KSČM
The Week of Protests was intended to be not only a campaign of unrest and gatherings but also of seminars. The aim is apparently to explain to the general public the reasons for the demonstration against the government called for Saturday (April 21) on Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague. The demonstration is being organized by the largest Czech trade union, the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions (ČMKOS).
The two political parties in opposition, the center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) and largely unreformed Communists (KSČM), have lent their support to the demonstration and the Week of Protests preceding it. They have been joined by ProAlt and some other fairly well known civil initiatives and associations, such as the Free Universities Movement, the Czech Council of Seniors and the Czech Union of Tenants. Several smaller trade unions operating outside the ČMKOS – the Association of Independent Unions (ASO), the communist-affiliated Trade Union Federation of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia (OSČMS), etc. – are also coming out in support.
However, the website stopvlade.cz, created by the protest organizers over the past few days, is being misleading when it lists under the link “Who we are” sympathetic trade unions said to be part of the larger federations. Overall the effect is powerful, though anyone interested in the genuine number of supporters of the demonstration and Week of Protests will come away unsatisfied.
Communication failings of Nečas’ government
According to the survey of political preferences carried out by STEM in March and published on April 11, all the parties listed are losing support while the number of undecided voters is increasing. For the opposition Social Democrats, who are closest of all the parties to ČMKOS, the main organizers of the planned protests, this means that their alternative program to government cuts, only hazily mapped out up until now, is not sufficiently appealing to the public.
But let’s return to Nečas’ government. Certain of its reform measures are undoubtedly essential. However, for the general public they would be more palatable if the government came up with measures to stimulate growth, mapped out the direction the Czech Republic should take, did not improvise as it has done up till now and offered voters some reassurance it knows what it is doing. But this appears beyond the capabilities of a group, one part of which comprises a “party” of would-be divas.
However, from the point of view of the impact on public opinion, the worst thing about this “government of budgetary responsibility” is its inability to explain intelligibly its policies to the people. In terms of communication Nečas’ government has failed completely. The reason for this is quite possibly that it regards the popularisation of reforms as a technical rather than a political matter. “Who shall kindle others must himself glow,” claimed a certain “leader of the proletariat,” who – unfortunately – mastered the art of “kindling others” perfectly.
Yet most leading Czech politicians don’t glow; at most they simply smoulder — some don’t even do that. This type can do nothing but rely on advertising agencies in the hope that they will popularize unpopular reforms by sleight of hand. But this won’t work. You have to talk and talk and talk to the people using a language and images which they understand.
The meagre outlook for the ODS and TOP 09
Some will no doubt remember 1992, when the ODS leader Václav Klaus crisscrossed the republic, visited hundreds of towns and villages and spoke with everyone he met in order to get their support for his political and economic vision. ČSSD’s Miloš Zeman did the same. But most other important figures in Czech politics have given priority to the Sunday afternoon public affairs program “Questions of Václav Moravec” and discussions on Czech Radio, Radio Impulse and Frequency 1.
For politicians, this is a more comfortable and less time consuming method of communication than “going to the people” advocated by the Russian narodniks. But the result is a chasm between politicians and the population. Those “below” only know those “above” from their TV screens and mutual incomprehension reigns.
This is borne out by the latest survey into party preferences. According to the STEM agency, if elections were held to Parliament today, VV would lose all their seats and the ODS and TOP 09 could hope for 72 seats, 78 tops if fortune smiled on the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL). The center right would have a significant minority in the Chamber of Deputies and find itself at the mercy or lack thereof of the left, if the ČSSD decided to govern with the support of the KSČM — which a more recent poll has placing second to the ČSSD if elections were held now.
The meagre outlook for the ODS, burdened down by the scandal surrounding former mayor Pavel Bém’s tenure at Prague City Council, is hardly surprising. However, the relatively dramatic losses suffered by TOP 09 among their core voters is worthy of note. Incidentally, in the 2010 elections significant numbers of the middle classes voted for TOP 09 as the party of change. Today, these voters are disappointed and are deserting the party of the charming Prince Karel Schwarzenberg (the TOP 09 chairman and foreign minister) and the reformist strongman Kalousek (the power behind the throne). Where they are headed, who can say? Apparently all the way to the ČSSD, since if we leave aside the Communist Party, this is the protest party of the moment.
The change of topic from the planned anti-government protests to current party preferences was deliberate. The dwindling popularity of the governing parties is only another way of expressing the government’s lack of credibility. What’s more, as many as a third of those questioned by STEM don’t know who they would vote for, and only just over half of those entitled to vote would participate in an election held today. One after the other they confirm that Czech society is suffering a “bad mood” and that its people are fed up and have no great expectations of the government.
This can be expressed differently in the context of the coming days. If people’s economic and social situation deteriorates still further and the government doesn’t get its act together, they will go out into the streets to protest. Many more than last year’s record 45,000 demonstrators might arrive at Wenceslas Square on 21 April. The situation of deprived groups is worse this year than last as a consequence of the government’s cost-cutting measures and inflation, political instability has become the norm and tensions in society have risen.
On top of that the trade unions are diligently adding fuel to the fire beneath the boiler in order to raise the pressure in advance of the planned protests.
Three demands of the unions
For instance, on April 11, ČMKOS informed PM Nečas that “its representatives did not intend to participate at the next regular tripartite meeting.” This was supposed to have taken place on April 19 and its agenda included the state budget and utilization of European funds.
And so the prime minister was forced to cancel the meeting, since there have to be present at least four representatives of the government, employers and trade unions. Well, it was only to be expected that the union bosses would ratchet things up. They could hardly fulminate convincingly against the government on April 21 on Wenceslas Square, if they had been sitting with it and the employers two days before at the negotiating table.
“The cup of patience has overflowed,” ČMKOS chairman Jaroslav Zavadil told journalists at the April 3 launch of the Stop Government campaign. “We want three things from the government,” he added. “That they stop the reforms, hand in their resignation and hold premature elections.”
The second and third demands became irrelevant after the government clawed its way out of the crisis. And the first was again knocked off the table on April 12, when Minister Kalousek at a meeting with ASO refused to retreat from the savings measures on which the government had reached agreement two days previously. Nevertheless, there will be plenty of reasons for the protests.
Teachers and the disabled
Teachers’ unions are making their voices heard. The government had promised to increase their salaries but instead are reducing them by around a thousand crowns. However, the voices of retired senior citizens and the disabled are being heard too. “For the first time in this country’s history, senior citizens have had to declare mass protests. It is a tragedy of this government’s policies. What the coalition is offering pensioners is simply not enough,” Zdeněk Pernes, chairman of the Czech Council of Seniors, told the daily Lidové noviny.
On April 9, the website Parlamentnilisty.cz quoted Václav Krása, chairman of the National Disability Council, as saying the Council was focussing on the culmination of the Week of Protests — the demonstration on April 21 on Wenceslas Square. “However, I’m worried that the atmosphere is not such that the government will react more forcefully,” he added immediately. Krása certainly knows his people! Up until 1998 he was a strongly right-wing MP with the ODS and later the liberal US-DEU, which at that time – as opposed to today’s Czech right wing – certainly didn’t believe that the social state was an unsustainable anachronism.
For several years Krása has been a spokesperson for the disabled, but he still thinks politically. For the atmosphere to change so that the government would be forced to react to the protest planned for April 21 Krása says it would be necessary to organize similar events in quick succession, so creating active disagreement with the government’s policy and constant pressure.
However, if the tone of the protest is set by someone like Jaromír Dušek, leader of the railway unions and sometimes well known for his vulgar, even homophobic statements, who is now calling the government a “cabinet of thugs,” Wenceslas Square may well erupt, but nothing positive and lasting will come of the protest. Any government would be group of fools if it didn’t react seriously to vulgarity let alone nonsense.
Ten basic steps
Nonsense will come soon enough, most probably on Sunday 15 April. This is the day that the Holešov Appeal, an informal association of people dissatisfied with the current situation in Czech society, has convened a “national assembly.” The movement’s sympathisers meet in eleven regional and approximately fifteen “district” towns and cities. If the original programme of the challenge from the start of this year was general, confused and unattainable without a violent overthrow of the valid constitutional order, its current wording is so absurd that it is in conflict with the local regime post 1989.
The authors of the programme are of the opinion that “revolution is knocking at the door” and have drawn up ten basic steps which have to be taken. For instance:
Introduce direct democracy
Carry out an economic and “moral-political” audit of the political parties, re-register them and suspend them if neceséry
Subject all privatisation projects to thorough review
Check all suspicious bank accounts in the CR and abroad
Introduce an asset-based tax for all families and relatives
Return to the historical structure of the state
Make MPs revocable in a single-chamber parliament and abolish completely their imunity
Fill ministerial functions in a non-political government with experts chosen by leading professional agencies, and functions in the judiciary, army and security services by independent specialist selection commissions
Provide free education, adequate healthcare and a dignified old age with state grants from the appropriate departments
Establish general referenda, with the exception of national security issues.
“We will give all honest people the chance to take control of the government, parliament and the office of president on the principles of a democratic state,” promises Jaroslav Petr on behalf of all Holešov Appeal activists. Even though overall the programme gives the impression of having been put together by the man on the moon, and is therefore harmless, the opposite could be the case.
Be careful of extremists
Many of the signatories and sympathisers of the Holešov Appeal are undoubtedly decent, upright people who are so appalled by the current situation that they are trying to find a way out. I don’t wish to insult them or question their honour. However, as a trained historian by profession, I would simply like to offer a small riposte.
There used to be a political party known by the abbreviation NSDAP (originally DNSAP). Its “eternal and immutable” programme comprised 25 brief points intended to control the “masses,” as the party “leader” put it. At first sight, this was a wretched patchwork with several inelegant, mainly anti-Semitic exceptions and plenty of generalities and absurdities. However, when the reins of the NSDAP were seized by a certain Adolf Hitler and his cadre, the NSDAP and its “harmless” programme was transformed into an antidemocratic, anti-humanist, totalitarian and finally criminal organisation.
The danger of the Holešov Appeal resides in the fact that, despite the idealism and innocent intentions of its founders, it could be taken over by an organised group of extremists and used as a weapon against this state and its democratic foundations. It is no mere coincidence that a kind of quarantine has gradually formed around the Holešov Appeal and both the ČSSD and ČMKOS, as well as ProAlt and other initiatives, mindful of their reputations, keep it at arm’s length.
Problems can’t be resolved in the street
In short, mass participation in the Week of Protests and the assembly on April 21 would indicate that the government is passive and wherever it is not working the anti-government opposition is automatically working. However, a mass of supporters of the Holešov Appeal at the “national assembly” on April 15 and at the other events it has announced would signal not only the weakness of the government, but the serious failure of democratic political mechanisms in the CR. However, both protests – the trade unions’ and the Holešov Appeal – are legitimate and it would make no sense to prevent them by force.
This means that Czech trade unions, which unlike their French counterparts do not have much experience with organizing protests, will have the opportunity over the next few days to pass their baccalaureate and improve their hitherto poor reputation in society, which has handicapped them during negotiations with the government. However, they might also discredit themselves if the union bosses do not keep the protest movement under control and if they are unable, if it is necessary, to withdraw in good time in an organised fashion.
However, whether the forthcoming days and perhaps weeks of anti-government protests are played out in a major or minor key, one thing is already certain: the problems which this country and to a greater or lesser extent most of Europe faces cannot in the end be resolved in the street.