Czech protesters are trying to defend democracy, 30 years after the Velvet Revolution. Can they succeed?

Source: The Washington Post / / By Michael Bernhard Petra Guasti Lenka Bustikova /

Our research shows that, yes, demonstrations can prevent the erosion of democracy. Here’s what’s going on.

30 years after velvet
A boy holds Czech flags during a rally demanding the resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis last month in Prague. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, on June 23, in Prague’s Letna Park, more than a quarter-million people assembled, this time calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis. It was the largest mass protest in the Czech capital since the 1989 Velvet Revolution elevated former dissident Vaclav Havel to the presidency in 1990.

Both then and now, the mass protests have been organized by civil society activists who acted against governing elites perceived as self-serving and corrupt. The Velvet Revolution protests pursued liberal democracy. Today’s activists seek to defend it against populism. When populism undermines democracy, mobilizing civil society may be the last firewall in its defense.

Babis campaigned for election in 2017 on the idea that politics could and should be approached in a businesslike fashion. He proposed to run the state as a firm.

His approach is consistent with what political scientists Lenka Bustikova and Petra Guasti have called “technocratic populism,” an anti-elite ideology that merges the appeal of technocratic expertise with populism, rejecting traditional parties and arguing that experts should be in charge to solve problems apolitically. As a political strategy, it relies on persuading people to remain passive, leaving politics to the experts. Once in power, technocratic populists work to increase the executive’s authority, placing it beyond the reach of parties, courts, the legislature and the people.

In the Czech Republic, that technocratic appeal hides corruption and fraud

But behind Babis’s technocratic language lie corruption and fraud. He relied on state and European Union subsidies to build his company, and used political power to weaken his business opponents — and increased his worth from $49 million in 2010 to $3.8 billion in 2019.

As a result, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the Czech police have been investigating Babis for fraudulent use of government and E.U. funds. The European Commission has accused him of widespread conflict of interest because his business empire placed in trust funds continues to benefit from E.U. subsidies while Babis is in office. Babis controls a substantial stake in many media outlets, including the two largest daily newspapers, making it difficult for the news media to report on his conflicts of interest.

How did this wave of protest begin?

On the Nov. 17, 2017, anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, activists launched an initiative called “A Million Moments for Democracy” on Facebook, calling for the prime minister to meet his campaign pledge to develop democracy and step down amid the ongoing investigation. Since April 2018, an active protest campaign has expanded well beyond Prague to more than 300 cities and villages. Regular protests are organized around the country in support of democracy and rule of law, calling for the prime minister’s resignation.

The present government is composed of Babis’s party, ANO, as well as the Czech Social Democrats. Babis founded ANO in 2012; in Czech, it stands for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, with an acronym meaning “yes.” But ANO has only 3,300 members and is financially dependent on its founder. As Babis declared in a 2016 interview with the Financial Times, “The party is me.” Neither his coalition partners nor the divided opposition are calling the prime minister to account for his conflicts of interest or fraud charges.

Under the motto “we are citizens, not employees,” the 2019 Letna Park protests have rejected Babis’s technocratic populism in three ways. First, the protesters demand ethical accountability, calling on Babis to step down until he is cleared of all pending criminal charges. Second, they reveal that Babis is not a self-made businessman, but an operator who built his fortune relying on state and E.U. subsidies. Third, as a campaign in defense of democracy, it unites citizens from across the political spectrum in an effort to defend their shared values.

Can a social movement succeed in holding government accountable?

Liberal democratic institutions normally involve two forms of accountability: horizontal accountability, or the checks and balances exerted by different branches of government; and vertical accountability, when voters decide whether to reelect incumbents.

Babis undermined horizontal accountability by replacing the justice minister to prevent charges against himself and his family from reaching court. He undermines vertical accountability, keeping voters’ support by sponsoring targeted measures such as free public transport for seniors and students and exploiting divisions within the parliamentary opposition.

But an active civil society can also defend the rule of law by protest. The Czech civic resistance campaign is an effort to use this third method: social accountability.

Does this method work? Based on the collective knowledge of more than 3,000 country experts, the “Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)” project has been able to collect a whole range of new democracy indicators, including civil society activism, and undertake research on this question and many others. Along with more than two dozen other political scientists, one of us, Michael Bernhard, led the team’s effort to collect new civil society indicators.

Using the new V-Dem data on civil society, Bernhard and several collaborators have shown that when civil society gets involved, it can indeed help prevent democratic breakdowns. Active and engaged civil societies have made democracies more durable, both in the past century and this one. An active civil society can also influence foreign policy and prevent wars.

Of course, such efforts are not always successful. Just across the Czech border, governments in Poland and in Hungary have rolled back democratic rights and institutions despite widespread protest. On the other hand, to the southeast in Slovakia, environmental activist and lawyer Zuzana Caputova won the recent presidential elections, campaigning as a liberal, civic answer to discontent with corruption, state capture and populism.

Quite literally, Czech activists know they stand on the border between democratic hope and illiberal danger.