Polarisation and populism
The radicalisation of Czech society we have experienced in recent months has its origins in the 1990s, although communication errors on the part of the current government have contributed to increased numbers of dissatisfied citizens. These people do not believe in the current political system, wishing for its complete transformation, claims Jan Charvát of the SYRI National Institute, who is an expert on the radicalisation of Czech society.
“As we look for answers for what has been happening in the Czech Republic in recent months and where the people who attend anti-government demonstrations are coming from, there is one thing we know for sure: the current situation is the result of several missteps taken by governments of the past,” Charvát says.
The first problematic moment, Charvát explains, came in the 1990s with the overlooking of a relatively large group of dissatisfied citizens. At that time, one-fifth of voters favoured anti-system parties. These people rejected political transformation in the form it eventually took. In addition, the number of people who didn’t vote was growing gradually. Currently, this group represents almost two-fifths of the Czech electorate.
“The second problem is acceptance of the disinformation scene during the migration crisis, legitimisation of disinformation by established political parties, and the subsequent inability of Czech society to effectively defend itself against disinformation narratives,” Charvát says.
The third problem came with the worsening of some people’s standard of living during the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent failure of the Czech cabinet of the time, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, to provide adequate assistance to these people. According to the scientist, the situation is not helped by the relatively weak communication of the current government during the autumn of 2022, which failed to reassure citizens frightened by the high increase in energy prices.
“Each of these problems has a different strength, importance and consequences. All of these problems are gradually resulting in an ever larger group of dissatisfied citizens who have lost faith in the current political system, and so are demanding a complete political overhaul. This group has long been targeted by people from the disinformation scene,” Charvát says. He adds that this is done for reasons both purely pragmatic and geostrategic. In the latter case, the pro-Russia orientation of a significant part of the disinformation scene plays a role.
“From this perspective, it is quite irrelevant whether current activities have their origin in an explicit Russian assignment or are based on the disinformation scene’s own interpretations. The consequence is growing polarisation and radicalisation of society, to which one part of the political mainstream has not yet found an effective response, while some established parties are trying to use the situation to their advantage,” Charvát says.
According to the scientist, who has long been interested in the radicalisation of Czech society, the disinformation scene underwent major transformation during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic accelerated a willingness in the population to listen to disinformation as well as mobilising many people who had not previously been politically active.
Theories of a global conspiracy, characteristic of the far right, began to permeate the disinformation scene and became associated with the narrative of the negative effects of vaccination on the human body. In addition, a significant part of the population struggling with the consequences of measures taken against the pandemic was mobilised. Subsequently, since the beginning of 2022, Europe has faced another, very dramatic crisis – the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to the SYRI political analyst, at the beginning of the war this caused such a shock in the disinformation scene that it went completely silent for a few weeks.
However, disinformation groups have gradually taken on a strictly pro-Russian interpretation of the conflict and started a whole repertoire of attacks against the European Union, individual European governments, the US and NATO. This has been forced to a large degree by the deteriorating economic situation, ongoing post-Covid inflation and the dramatic rise in energy prices caused by the war.
“These events led to a series of protests attended by tens of thousands of people, which are expected to continue this year,” Charvát adds. The main theme of these demonstrations is the call for peace, which protestors purport can be achieved by withdrawing military support to Ukraine and ending sanctions against Russia along with renewing the purchase of strategic materials from Russia. Parts of this argument were used by Andrej Babiš in his presidential campaign, in an attempt to reach dissatisfied voters mobilised by the disinformation scene.