In a country grappling with several crises and where the mainstream left is not represented in parliament, understanding the dynamics of anti-government protests is crucial. This analysis of anti-government and anti-system mobilization in the Czech Republic explores the roles of protest leaders and citizens participating in protests.
Ales Michal and Petra Guasti
June 22, 2023
The Czech Republic has faced numerous crises over the past year, including a slow post-Covid-19 recovery, the war in Ukraine resulting in an unprecedented number of refugees, an energy crisis, and double-digit inflation. These challenges have fueled anti-government mobilization.
The political context is conducive to anti-government protests, as the 2021 parliamentary elections saw over one million forfeited votes as several parties, including the Social Democrats, Communists, and several new populist radical right groups, fell below the five per cent threshold. After losing power in 2021, former prime minister Andrej Babiš toured the country’s peripheries in 2022 in search of “forgotten voters” as he prepared to run for president.
The new coalition government led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala struggled to address the energy crisis and inflation with rising food and fuel prices, while accommodating the influx of Ukrainian refugees. As a result, anti-government mobilization intensified, culminating in a large protest on September 3, 2022 in which an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 protesters gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
This protest brought together diverse forces—including anti-government protesters and groups opposed to Covid-19 measures, far-right groups, and the Communist Party—demanding the government’s resignation and the country’s exit from the European Union, NATO, and the World Health Organization (WHO). They were also united by anti-establishment sentiment, demands for a return to cheap Russian oil and gas, national food self-reliance, a cessation of humanitarian and military support for Ukraine and of welfare for Ukrainian refugees.
There is a supply and demand side to the current anti-government mobilization. The former consist of the relatively homogenous extra-parliamentary opposition. The latter consists of the critical citizens protesting with diverse and complex motivations, and holding populist and anti-system political positions, with blurred boundaries.
Our analysis of the dynamics of anti-government mobilization in the Czech Republic is based on participant observation of protest events, individual interviews, and media coverage and is structured in three parts. First, in the introduction, we provide contextual background information. Second, we examine the supply-side factors contributing to the competition between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary populists, populist radical right and extreme right. Third, we look at the demand side, including critical citizens and those who engage in uncivil behaviour.
Supply-Side: Extra-Parliamentary Opposition
Since September 2022, a new extra-parliamentary anti-system political force has emerged, mobilizing tens of thousands of supporters nationwide. The movement labeled Czechia First was initially led by the anti-vaccination activist Ladislav Vrabel.The protest was part of his new citizen initiative based on a loose social movement organizational structure. The core of the new movement is a coalition of minor and unsuccessful political parties and organizations occupying the extremist and anti-system political space, including the far-left Communist Party, radical nationalists, anti-Semitic groupings, and pan-Slavic elements. The movement seeks to destroy the representative system of political parties and replace it with the rule of ordinary people.
Vrabel is facing personal foreclosures as well as prosecution for hate speech and scaremongering about a purported nuclear attack on Russia by NATO. His aim is to mobilize Czechia First’s supporters to maximize the financial support of small donors for events and his legal defense costs.
Figure 1. “Czechia First” demonstration called by Ladislav Vrabel. January 21, 2023, Wenceslas Square, Prague. The number of participants is influenced by the windy winter weather. Part of the anti-system nationalists were demobilized due to the media dominance of the presidential election run-off between populist Andrej Babiš and pro-Western Petr Pavel on January 28. Photo credit: Ales Michal.
Isolationism and pro-Russia appeals are at the heart of Czechia First’s demands. Between September 2022 and May 2023, speakers at seven of its demonstrations called for a new economic dialogue with the Russian regime and for leaving the EU, NATO, the WHO, and the UN. They also alleged a military threat to the Czech Republic from the United States. The diverse demands are united by a strong anti-government sentiment and a moralization of politics, describing the current pro-Western centre-right cabinet as “evil”. The performative character of these events is illustrated by the repeated releases of white doves at Czechia First’s events.
Recently, however, the lawyer Jindřich Rajchl, replaced Vrabel as the informal leader of the extra-parliamentary opposition. (Both men had initially collaborated.) After losing the leadership contest of the small radical-right Trikolora party in 2022, Rajchl started building his Right, Respect, Expertise (PRO) party. Programmatically, it is identical to Trikolora, calling itself a technocratic populist party that emphasizes expert judgments. Rajchl defines political elites and the media as the enemies of the (ordinary) people:
“We have powerful enemies against us who only pretend to be our friends, but in reality, they are trying to make sure that the elites to whom the politicians and the media and all the financial power of this world are tied can control us, the free citizens of this country. I promise you that I will do everything to never let that happen!”
He is funded by small donors and entrepreneurs opposed to Covid-19 measures, and he organized several protest events under the motto Czechia Against Misery that gathered tens of thousands of participants.
Figure 2. Radical right lawyer Jindřich Rajchl and his supporters on “Czechia First”, October 28, 2022, Wenceslas Square, Prague. This demonstration was called by Ladislav Vrabel in cooperation with Rajchl. Photo credit: Ales Michal.
A better organizer and speaker than Vrabel, Rajchl articulated clear demands for the resignation of the government and its replacement with a caretaker cabinet of experts. As his demands went unfulfilled, he announced blockades of government buildings. While these did not happen with the expected intensity, support for Rajchl continues to grow, and his supporters are radicalizing.
After anti-government protest organized by Rajchl on March 12, a group of extremist participants moved to the Czech National Museum building and, following the example of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, attempted to break in and tear down the Ukrainian flag on display. He denounced the failed attack but he simultaneously challenged the legitimacy of the police intervention.
Rajchl says he accepts parliamentary democracy and persistently tries to make his politics appear more moderate to remain within the legal framework and to separate the PRO from the most extreme groups. The party rejects leaving the EU and other international organizations, and it does not cooperate with anti-system organizations. Rajchl aims to “break through the glass ceiling of the establishment politics” and enter parliament.
Electorally, Vrabel and Rajchl are competing in the crowded space occupied by two parliamentary actors: Tomio Okamura and his radical-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, and by Babiš and his Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party. Okamura has adopted far-right radicalism and Euroscepticism since 2013; Babiš only embraced nativist narratives during his failed 2023 presidential campaign and the subsequent intensification of friendship with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. ANO and the SPD have the advantage of media attention as the only opposition parties in parliament, and they receive state funding. After the 2021 general election, they received €6 million and €2.2 million respectively.
Demand-Side: Critical Citizens
Critical citizens participating in these protests constitute three distinct groups, each with their own motivations and varying levels of radicalization.
The first consists of economic underdogs mobilized by the economic hardships they have faced in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns exacerbated these hardships as well as fueled strong protests from entrepreneurs and smaller businesses against the restrictions on economic activity. Over time, this group has merged with the populist radical right, with rising inflation fueling their mobilization. The common denominator in this group is the fight against the government, which they believe has failed to provide adequate economic measures and clear explanations for the ones taken.
Figure 3. “Czechia First” demonstration called by Ladislav Vrabel. May 6, 2023, Wenceslas Square, Prague. Self-proclaimed militia participants from the organization “Refugee crisis” formed in 2015. Photo credit: Ales Michal.
The second group comprises radicalized nationalists who support political parties with nationalist or populist appeals. This includes supporters of ANO, which focuses on the socially vulnerable and pensioners, and of the SPD, which is strongly critical of Ukrainian migrants and the EU. This group also includes nonvoters and supporters of smaller parties that did not cross the parliamentary threshold in the 2021 elections. It embraces welfare chauvinism and sees the government’s aid provision to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees as a betrayal.
The third and most radical group comprises extremist and anti-system citizens who advocate for violent solutions and demand the immediate overthrow of the political system. Some are supporters or members of minor extremist parties or initiatives, such as the anti-Semitic National Democracy Party. Others are radical leftists, including the newly extra-parliamentary Communist Party, who are pro-Russia and emphasize pan-Slavism. This is the group that attempted to storm the National Museum building in March.
Figure 4. “Czechia First” demonstration called by Ladislav Vrabel. May 6, 2023, Wenceslas Square, Prague. Soviet flag as a pro-Communist reminder of the end of the WW2 in Europe. Photo credit: Ales Michal.
Despite their different motivations, all three groups are united in their opposition to the government and the presence of Ukrainian refugees. The demonstrations feature banners with slogans such as “We want peace” and “No war”, along with highly critical depictions of Fiala and his coalition partner Markéta Pekarová Adamová, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and head of the TOP 09 party. The most frequently chanted slogans are “Resignation!” and “We do not want misery,” but some have chauvinistic overtones, such as “Bohemia to Bohemians.”
Since 2022, the Czech Republic has been rocked by a wave of anti-government protests fueled by interrelated crises. The protests peaked last September but have continued with less intensity as infighting among protest leaders ensued and rival events were led by Vrabel and Rajchl. The radical-right mobilization has two core roots: the far-right initiatives challenging migration policies applied during the “refugee crisis” in 2015–2016 and the Covid-era alliance of anti-vaxxers, entrepreneurs with grievances against anti-Covid measures, and esoteric groups.
Some protesters became demobilized as the government provided support for people to cope with growing fuel prices, while others radicalized, resulting in the competing anti-government and anti-system protests. Populist leaders have tried to tap into these protests, notably Babiš, especially during his unsuccessful 2023 presidential run, and Okamura who as he tries to prevent the weakening of his electoral base.
Civil society has also mobilized, particularly during the 2023 presidential elections, and it appears stronger than its increasingly uncivil counterpart. However, the anti-government protests continue, despite the government’s efforts to quell them. The crises that fueled them show no signs of abating, and it remains to be seen how the situation will evolve in the coming months and years.
Ales Michal is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague. His research focuses on definitions of conceptual boundaries of populist and anti-system political space and protest mobilization in Central and Eastern Europe.
Petra Guasti is an associate professor of democratic theory at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Czech Academy of Sciences. Her research focuses on reconfiguring the political landscape and revolves around representation, democratization, and populism. In AUTHLIB, she leads the work package on minipublics.
The AUTHLIB consortium does not take collective positions. Publications only represent the views of their authors.
Header picture: “Czechia First” demonstration call by Ladislav Vrabel. May 6, 2023, Wenceslas Square, Prague. Support for Russia by single participants, Soviet, Russian, Czech and Moravian flags, Slovak LSNS and anti-NATO banners. Photo credit: Ales Michal.