In the heart of Central Europe, Czechia, formerly known as the Czech Republic, has long been celebrated for its rich history and democratic evolution post the Velvet Revolution. The Velvet Revolution, which unfolded in 1989, marked a pivotal moment in the history of Czechoslovakia, signifying the end of over four decades of communist rule. This peaceful uprising was part of the larger wave of anti-communist movements sweeping through Eastern Europe, influenced by reforms in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. The revolution began with a student-led peaceful demonstration in Prague, brutally suppressed by the police. This event ignited widespread public outrage against the regime, leading to a series of large-scale demonstrations across the country. The key players in this movement included students, intellectuals, artists, and dissidents like Václav Havel, a playwright who later became the first President of post-communist Czechoslovakia. The opposition was galvanized by groups like the Civic Forum, which played a crucial role in demanding democratic reforms. The sustained protests eventually forced the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to acknowledge the need for change. This acknowledgment led to the resignation of the Communist leadership, the dismantling of the one-party system, and the initiation of a transition towards a parliamentary democracy. In the aftermath of the revolution, Czechoslovakia experienced a peaceful transfer of power, the establishment of free elections, and the formation of a democratic government. This peaceful transition was significant not only for Czechoslovakia but also as a symbol of the end of Soviet influence in the region and the broader collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The legacy of the Velvet Revolution continued with the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into two independent nations in 1993: the Czech Republic (now known as Czechia) and Slovakia. This event, often referred to as the “Velvet Divorce,” was conducted without violence, further highlighting the democratic and peaceful ethos that characterized the Velvet Revolution. The revolution remains a powerful testament to the impact of non-violent resistance and civic engagement in effecting political change. Now, from the precipice of this revolution in the span of just over a decade, from 2006 to the present day, there’s been an undeniable shift in its political landscape. This transformation is not merely a series of unrelated incidents but points towards a larger trend of democratic erosion, aligning Czechia closer to authoritarian regimes than ever before. To fully understand the magnitude of this shift, one must first recognize the signs of democratic erosion. Broadly, it encompasses reduced electoral integrity, curtailed freedoms, weakened rule of law, and erosion of civil liberties. In the context of Czechia, several events and patterns provide alarming evidence.
One event that stands out prominently in the recent democratic trajectory of Czechia is the 2017 general elections. These elections brought significant shifts to the political landscape of the country, and the outcomes and aftermath provide a lens through which to view the creeping democratic erosion in Czechia. The elections came at a time when Europe was witnessing the rise of right-wing populism, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump serving as recent precedents. Amidst this backdrop, the Czech Republic was grappling with issues of corruption, economic disparities, and fears over immigration due to the refugee crisis. The centrist party ANO 2011, led by Andrej Babiš, a billionaire businessman, secured a clear victory with nearly 30% of the vote. Babiš’s rise can be seen in the larger global context of businessmen-turned-politicians leveraging their outsider status. His campaign promised to root out corruption, streamline government processes, and bring a business-like efficiency to governance, effectively capitalizing on public distrust towards the established political class. Babiš, often dubbed the “Czech Trump,” owns a significant business empire, including two major newspapers. This brings forth concerns over media neutrality. Post-elections, investigations by organizations like Transparency International highlighted Babiš’s potential conflicts of interest, particularly regarding the use of EU funds for personal business gains. This situation not only weakens institutional checks but also undermines the very tenet of democratic leadership — accountability. During his tenure, Babiš adopted a confrontational stance towards media outlets that were critical of him, using terms like “fake news” to delegitimize critical coverage. This tactic, while not unique to Czechia, has been effectively used by leaders worldwide to erode public trust in independent journalism. The Babiš era saw attempts to undermine judicial independence. His refusal to accept the appointment of certain ministers based on recommendations from other democratic institutions stands as evidence. Babiš’s stance on refusing refugee quotas, despite EU agreements, underscores this tension between populism and democratic commitments as seen here: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-czech-refugee-pm/czech-deputy-pm-rejects-refugee-quotas-says-country-should-fight-any-eu-sanctions-idUSKCN10E227/. His political power directly benefits his business empire, reminiscent of the oligarchs in Russia. Furthermore, the country’s media landscape has been transformed. Reports indicate that a significant portion of Czechia’s media is now controlled by politicians or their allies, undermining press freedom and journalistic integrity as seen at https://www.transparency.org/en/press/european-commission-confirms-czech-prime-minister-andrej-babish-has-conflict. This echoes tactics seen in countries like Hungary, where the state or closely allied business magnates own large sections of the media, curbing their critical voice.
Delving further into Czechia’s democratic landscape, it’s crucial to address some underpinning concepts of democratic erosion, drawing from scholarly insights and real-world analogies. One of the foremost signals of democratic erosion is the rise of populist leaders who challenge the legitimacy of established democratic institutions, as Czech President Miloš Zeman exemplifies this trend. Miloš Zeman’s tenure as a veteran Czech politician has been in office since March 2013, having been re-elected for a second term in 2018. His presidency is notable for several reasons. Zeman has openly expressed admiration for authoritarian figures and has employed divisive rhetoric, often targeting the media, intellectuals, and urban elites. See https://theworld.org/stories/2013-08-06/how-new-czech-president-using-corruption-scandal-stage-power-grab to see a broad overview of Zeman’s stylistic power grab in Czechia. His approach is a classic populist strategy: projecting oneself as the “voice of the people” while undermining other democratic institutions. Zeman is known for often using direct and sometimes controversial language. He has been a vocal critic of immigration, particularly during the European refugee crisis, and has expressed skepticism about the European Union, despite Czechia’s membership in the bloc. Zeman has shown an openness to closer ties with Russia and China, diverging from the traditional Western orientation of Czech foreign policy. His admiration for authoritarian figures and willingness to engage with leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have raised concerns about the direction of Czechia’s foreign relations. And, although the Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, Zeman has exerted considerable influence on domestic politics. He has been involved in the formation of governments and the appointment of prime ministers, often pushing the boundaries of his constitutional powers. Additionally, one of the cornerstones of a democracy is the system of checks and balances. Recent years have seen a systematic effort to undermine independent institutions in Czechia, as Zeman’s attempted dismissal of the country’s top court judge in 2019 raised serious concerns about judicial independence as https://judicature.duke.edu/articles/the-collapse-of-judicial-independence-in-poland-a-cautionary-tale/ suggests. Similar patterns have emerged in countries like Turkey and Poland, where leaders have sought to control the judiciary. An active civil society is often democracy’s first line of defense, as well; however, in Czechia, NGOs, especially those funded by foreign entities or focusing on human rights and transparency, face increasing hostility. The demonization of philanthropist George Soros, seen in Hungary and Poland, has also found echoes in Czech discourse as found here: https://apnews.com/8c46c95106f54a11883239aca0280750 When civil society is weakened, public participation diminishes, and with it, the public’s ability to hold leaders accountable. Democratic erosion at its core isn’t just about changing rules or controlling institutions; it’s about the erosion of unwritten norms and values. The frequency with which leaders in Czechia have bypassed conventions, whether it’s the refusal to appoint ministers or the bypassing of parliamentary protocols, points to this erosion. Finally, Czechia’s democratic backslide doesn’t occur in isolation. It’s part of a broader regional trend, with countries like Hungary under Viktor Orbán and Poland witnessing significant democratic decay. This regional shift can create a domino effect, emboldening autocratic tendencies in neighboring countries.
Comparatively, Czechia’s decline in the global democracy index is telling. In 2006, it ranked higher than many of its Central European peers as seen in its freedom house report here: https://freedomhouse.org/country/czech-republic/nations-transit/2023. Yet, as per the recent V-Dem Institute’s annual report, Czechia’s liberal democracy index score has steadily declined, placing it behind counterparts like Slovakia. Potential objections might point to Czechia’s foundationally sound institutions and the continued presence of electoral democracy. While these remain, the essence of a functioning democracy isn’t merely about casting votes. The quality of democracy, the safeguarding of minority rights, the independence of the judiciary, and the freedom of the press are equally vital. As https://balkaninsight.com/2023/07/31/back-to-the-future-czechias-stuttering-fight-against-corruption/ goes into depth of the ongoing issue of corruption in Czechia, particularly highlighted by the recent “Dosimeter scandal” that erupted in June last year, it wraps up and perfectly embodies the ongoing struggle in fighting corruption internally. The corruption involves Prague’s deputy mayor, Petr Hlubucek, and other figures linked to organized crime, indicating deep-rooted corruption in the political system. The history of corruption in Czechia post the fall of Communism notes that despite election promises to combat corruption, little progress has been made. This is evidenced by Czechia’s stagnant position in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, where it currently ranks 41st out of 180 countries. The tenure of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš must be emphasized as his involvement in suspected subsidies fraud and conflicts of interest due to his control of the Agrofert conglomerate. The article suggests that the current government, led by the ODS party, hasn’t shown enough commitment to genuinely address corruption issues. This is illustrated by their response to various scandals, including the Dosimeter case and a public housing scandal in Brno. Despite some legislative efforts to improve transparency and tackle conflicts of interest, the article argues that these measures are insufficient. The government’s reluctance to implement more robust reforms or embrace transparency fully is seen as a significant obstacle to combating entrenched corruption. The article concludes with a pessimistic outlook on the chances of substantial anti-corruption efforts in the current political climate. Moreover, I understand that democratic erosion is often not an overt overthrow but a gradual, almost imperceptible process. It’s the frog in the boiling pot, so to speak, unaware of the peril until it’s too late. Czechia’s trajectory aligns with this pattern. So, why does this matter? The implications are twofold. On a regional level, Central Europe has been grappling with nationalist movements and democratic backsliding, from Poland’s judicial reforms to Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy’. Czechia’s shift adds to this growing list, potentially emboldening similar movements in neighboring countries. On a broader scale, it’s a strong reminder that democracies, no matter how deep-rooted, are fragile and need active safeguarding. Czechia’s journey from 2006 to today offers a cautionary tale of how democracies can erode from within. While it might not have descended into full-blown authoritarianism, the signs are evident. As we reflect on this, it’s essential to remember that democracy isn’t a fixed state but a continuous process, deserving of our vigilance and effort.