Thousands of people gathered for anti-government protests following a call from the heterogeneous protest group Holešovská výzva, or Holešovská appeal. Among their main demands is the resignation of the current government – as well as a new law that would introduce automatic referenda. Analysts say that the demonstrations, which last week were held not only in Prague, but also in cities across the country, could herald a new era of escalating public frustration with the government’s policies and harsh austerity measures. Political pundit Jiří Pehe speaks about the aims of the new protest movement and its significance.
“The main demand of the Holešovská výzva is for the current government to resign and to force the current president to step down. But in more general terms, they are asking for the establishment of a government of experts and also possibly to enrich the current democratic system with strong elements from direct democracy.”
How realistic is it that their demands would be implemented even partially?
“I do not think that the Holešovská výzva is very realistic. It is an initiative that I think really originated because of the high level of frustration in Czech society with government politics and more generally, frustration with the democratic system, which people who have joined this initiative see as corrupt. They explicitly talk about corruption and the need to fight it. So I think this initiative is more about exclamation marks than about being realistic and thinking in practical terms.”
What does it say about the current political situation that Czechs, who are not known for taking to the streets to voice their opinion, in recent months have been demonstrating quite frequently?
“Analysts and observers of Czech politicians have warned for some time that something like this would be coming. That the level of frustration among ordinary citizens is very high and that they do not have a way to express their feelings about what the government is doing other than protesting. And that in fact, there is a high potential for initiatives with a strongly populist appeal which will have no clear program but basically will ask for the destruction of the current democratic system. And that is exactly what is happening. The government is not very responsive and it is not trying to engage in any kind of dialogue with society or the opposition about its reforms and budget cuts. And this is the kind of situation that could potentially be explosive, where people really do not see any other way than taking to the streets.”
Finance Minister Kalousek has said the protesters are at odds with basic principles of democracy. Is that a valid assessment and one that is productive for the dialogue with protesters?
“If you analyze its main text, then one could agree with Mr. Kalousek that the movement has strong anti-democratic elements or dimensions built into it. On the other hand, one has to see that the government does not really behave in a very democratic way either. It ignores protests from the people, the opposition, and pushes through its so-called reforms in a way that many people consider anti-democratic. On top of that, it institutes more and more cuts in a situation where we have high levels of corruption everywhere, so people feel victimized by the government’s efforts to reform the economy.”
Lastly, how do you expect the situation to develop? Will it further escalate?
“My feeling is that the Holešovská appeal may continue in some form but that it may not become a mass movement because its demands are, in my opinion, too confused and do not offer a clear alternative. I would see this initiative as one that stirs things up and prepares the ground for other movements.”