Talking point: change from below
Czechs who protested over climate change and corruption are facing a prime minister who keeps saying ‘no’. The question for them is: now what?
In those liminal days between Christmas and Hogmanay, I spent some time in the central European capital of Prague.
The Czech Republic is a country that I’ve come to be fascinated by. The gorgeous streets of Prague are a dream to walk through on a December day, in contrast to the summer, when the city explodes into a scene of ‘overtourism’ beyond even an Edinburgh resident’s worst nightmare.
This year, galleries and museums were dedicated to marking the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when peaceful protesting led to the collapse of communism and the election of the dissident Václav Havel to the presidency.
While the streets may have been quiet after Christmas, only weeks before there had been scenes of protest unseen in scale since the revolution.
What do the protestors want? In broad terms, the people are concerned with corruption and climate change.
It’s all been organised by a group called Million Moments for Democracy, started by two students in Prague who shared a petition calling on the prime minister to resign, for reasons which may sound all too familiar.
Andrej Babiš became PM in 2017, leading a new movement that was “neither left nor right”. For his social media campaigning, hostility towards journalists and scepticism on climate change – not to mention his vast wealth – he quickly became known internationally as the Czech Donald Trump.
Babiš’ business dealings have landed him in trouble. He has been subject to investigations into tax fraud as well as a European Commission conflict of interest probe into the EU agricultural subsidy scheme and his farming empire.
In a campaign focused on Babiš, 1,200,00 people have taken part in rallies, over half a million signed the petition and a Czech broadsheet newspaper made the two founding students its people of the year for 2019. They’ve electrified people in a way that is comparable with Extinction Rebellion.
But the prime minister maintains he won’t go.
I met one of the movement’s organisers, Janek Piňos, who told me that they needed a change of tack if the movement is to be sustained and bring about any change.
“Babiš said this very famous line,” Piňos told me.
“[He said] ‘I will never, never, never resign. Anything can happen, I will never resign.’
“He is like a middle-Asian dictator like this.”
So, the question dogging the movement now is: what’s next?
“We must change more from demonstrations to proactive work,” Piňos said.
Czech journalists keep asking – to Piňos’ annoyance – if they plan to launch a rival political party.
“We built a civil society movement. We follow Havel’s ideas that there should be a strong civil society, and only on this grassroots movement can a good democracy grow,” Piňos said.
“It’s so sad that only 30 years after the revolution which was built on this movement, it looks like political thinkers in this country have forgotten this idea.”
Instead, the movement has always advocated for small, simple actions, such as subscribing to trustworthy media, engaging in political conversations and doing volunteer community work.
"These are moments that, when added together, have the power to change the atmosphere in our country for the better," their website reads.
On 7 January, they held a press conference announcing a new strategy, which goes further in that direction. Plans involve moving decision making away from Prague and hosting public debates in each of the 12 Czech regions.
They call it "Million Moments 3.0" and described their primary aim now as being "the victory of democratic/non populistic parties in general elections in autumn 2021".
"While the 1.0 approach was only/mainly about strong protest demands for Babiš’s resignation, and the 2.0 asked people more for making their own positive 'whiles' – daily small actions for democracy, the 3.0. includes all previous strategies and has the highest political challenge" their statement set out.
“We will go closer to people’s real lives and highlight regional problems and solutions for the local elections in autumn 2020,” they said.
As Piňos told me, days before the announcement was made: “It’s a lack of imagination that there can be a political life beyond political parties.”
Rather than accept defeat at the top, the Czechs now hope that before the next election, they can change things from below.