Mass Demonstrations and Spontaneous Civic Gatherings
Prague’s Wenceslas Square has been the site of mass demonstrations and spontaneous civic gatherings. It is also a symbol of patriotic and national identity. Consequently, any civic, political, or cultural event that occurs at this place has major implications.
At the end of April this year, more than 100,000 people thronged the square to take part in one of the biggest demonstrations since 1989. One common idea caused them to congregate for this gathering: the Czech Republic should not continue to be governed in the way it is now. The demonstration was the culmination of the civilian population’s disagreement with the direction society has taken under the leadership of a rightwing neoliberal coalition. The unifying element comprised three demands: “insidious and asocial reforms should be stopped; the government should resign; and early elections should be called.” This civic manifestation was organised by trade unions, civil initiatives, and interest groups. The demonstration illustrated the actual power of individual political players. Trade unionists had good reason to be satisfied. They showed that they are able to prepare a large demonstration in terms of substance and publicity as well as in terms of organisation and logistics. The role played by civil initiatives was a lot smaller albeit still significant. The opposition political parties (the social democrats and the communists) deliberately remained on the sidelines. At the same time, they had also been forced there by the “anti-party” attitude of a large portion of the critical public. The course of the demonstration and the way in which it was covered in the media as well as the way it was handled in technical and organisational terms was undoubtedly a major success for the organisers. It is also evident, however, that it did not result in any actual change or even the fulfilment of at least some of the demonstrators’ demands. And there is not even the slightest indication that the governing elites are going to change their minds any time soon. When the government talks about certain corrective measures, this primarily involves a response to partial changes to the conceptual ideas being pushed through by contemporary European leaders rather than submitting to the demands of demonstrators. After all, even rightwing Czechs admit that cutting one’s way to growth is the same as squaring the economic circle.
The demonstration was an assembly of those who are not satisfied. Sociological surveys suggest that more than three quarters of the population of the Czech Republic are dissatisfied with the government as well as with its “programme of fiscal responsibility” and the practical implementation of this programme, in particular. This is what citizens agree upon. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear how they should proceed, because there is no realistic, generally accepted concept for the development of society that is palatable to the majority of citizens. The opinion prevails among citizens that this discontent is not a rejection of capitalism per se. The majority want capitalism to be “rectified.” Undoubtedly, what appeals to the masses is the concept of the welfare state, as it is remembered using the somewhat idealised view of the West that prevailed behind the Iron Curtain in the final decades of the last century. The concept of radical change, regardless of whether it is based on the ideas of social forums and critical civic initiatives or radical, leftwing, communist endeavours or other anti-capitalist projects, is accepted by around one sixth of the population.
What is the European dimension of our Czech circumstances? It is amazing how there is so little acknowledgment in this country of the European aspects of the current social and political conflicts. At the same time, even a cursory glance at the economic and geopolitical contexts clearly shows that the Czech situation is fundamentally linked to the situation that prevails throughout the Central European region with the obvious dominance of Germany and some important global players and the exponents of groups representing powerful international capital. Even during the preparation of anti-government speeches or in discussions among civic initiatives and trade unionists, there was no mention of the fact that we are part of an all-European social conflict. We frequently see declarations of a so-called patriotic attitude and calls to fight under a national banner. Of course, this does not mean a surge in nationalism, but is an expression of a narrow perspective on “domestic” problems whilst overlooking their European dimensions. It is as though people thought – aided and abetted by some of their political leaders – that we live on an isolated island. On the contrary, our goal should be to participate as actively as possible in the formulation of a European leftwing strategy, to putting up for discussion a Central European perspective along with our experience of the socialist era and our specific experiences of the remorseless destruction of the principles of the welfare state. The internationalism of working people is not dead. On the contrary, it is a prerequisite for the future.
We are in the middle of a conflict that has an increasingly profound impact on Czech society with rising tensions in many directions. The lack of constructive starting points and civic debate could turn out to benefit some solutions rather than others. Surveys of public opinion show that the Left is gaining strength, regardless of whether it concerns social democrats or communists. On the other hand, the neoliberal Right is also mobilising and raising the spectre of the communists making a comeback and having at least a share in power. A torrid autumn is ahead of us. Besides regional elections, which will undoubtedly also offer a commentary on the performance of the rightwing government up to now, as well as elections for one third of the senate, where there is a realistic chance of the social democrats increasing their majority, early parliamentary elections could also be on the schedule. The new coalition government that has been cobbled together still has to negotiate several political minefields, which could bring it down. Egregious church restitutions, the definitive approval of pension, health, and tax reform, and several corruption cases could not only “shoot down” some politicians, but also an entire governing party. But that is another story.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that the Czech spring brought the first visible success, but so far this does not presage the certainty of outright victory.