Protests in Prague: will the price cap influence the public?
WHAT IS HAPPENING? On September 3, around 70,000 demonstrators gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to demand the resignation of the first
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
September 3, approximately 70,000 protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Petr Fiala and demand that the ruling coalition reduce energy prices. Event organizers declared that the demonstrations would be repeated on September 28 if the government did not resign.
– Energy price caps unlikely to prevent further protests in the short to medium term
– The government will remain in power, but the elections could lead to minor changes in the Senate that echo those seen at the municipal level
– The vector of Czech foreign policy is very unlikely to change, and public opinion will continue to be influenced primarily by economic and energy issues
EXPENSIVE ENERGY, NATIONAL DILEMMAS
Some far-right and fringe groups that helped organize the September 3 protest in Prague call for ensure gas imports from Russia and military neutrality. Prime Minister Fiala characterized the demonstration organized by pro-Russian forces and fueled by Russian propaganda. These and other key far-right and left-wing parties participating in the protest has fallen below the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation in the last elections.
Although energy prices have slightly fallen in the days following the protest, electricity and gas from the Czech Republic were among The tallest in Europe in terms of purchasing power parity in August 2022. On September 13, the Czech government announcement he had agreed to cap gas and electricity prices for households at 3 and 6 crowns per kilowatt hour, respectively, paid for through a tax on windfall profits from the energy sector and dividends from public enterprises.
Prior to this month’s protest, the ruling coalition had just survived a vote of no confidence in connection with energy and inflation issues and has suffered a corruption scandal involving a former deputy mayor of the main ruling coalition party, STAN.
PRICE CAPS AND PUBLIC PERCEPTION
Ahead of Czech senatorial and municipal elections on September 23-24 ‒ billed as a referendum on the current leadership by opposition parties ‒ Prime Minister Fiala has intensified his communication efforts on energy and other burning issues. In a television address on September 18, Fiala spoke about energy price caps and called on Czech residents to save energy. However, major municipal victories for opposition party candidates in most major cities the 25th indicates widespread public disapproval of Fiala and his government as well as their inability to communicate with the public about politics.
Misinformation and miscommunication has already become a key political issue over the past month, with many people misrepresenting and/or perceiving Fiala’s comments about the Wenceslas Square protests as rejecting all its participants (rather than its organizers) and their concerns as being exclusively pro-Russian. What else, although the energy price cap is set to keep prices below current levels, they are still several times higher than previous years. In a June statement, Fiala said the government long term plan Reducing dependence on Russian gas by developing renewables, LNG ports and gas supplies to EU countries would take two to five years and lead to soaring energy prices.
The slowness of this transition, combined with insufficient measurement and communication on energy prices, could continue to cause public dissatisfaction in the short and medium term. Failure by the government to appease the public will likely result in (albeit minor) Senate casualties and further protests. Some notables won for opposition and independent candidates in the first round of senatorial elections seem to reflect this trend. However, the election will only decide the fate of a third of the seats, and the ruling party is expected to keep control of the Senate, regardless of the outcome.
Despite the signal sent by voters this month, the competition that is likely to have the most direct effect on the Prime Minister and his coalition is the elections for the Chamber of Deputies, which will not take place until 2025. Only this lower house of parliament has the power to organize a vote of no confidence, which the opposition can call following the recent and ongoing elections and is immediate concern for the Fiala government. However, as in the previous vote at the beginning of September, the opposition has not yet enough seats to form a government, or enough votes to oust the current ruling coalition. The only party that local observers identifying as likely to leave the ruling Pirates coalition would leave the current majority intact even without that party’s four seats. As with recent price caps, popular discontent will continue to push current leaders on domestic policy, but is unlikely to topple the government in the near term. With the protesters’ deadline of September 25 not being met, the promised follow-up protest in Wenceslas Square is set to go ahead (albeit with a somewhat lower turnout).
WILL PUBLIC PROTESTS INVITE A CHANGE IN FOREIGN POLICY
Despite the pro-Russian views of the event organizers, local political observers combat that many protesters during the Wenceslas Square demonstrations were motivated by economic and energy issues rather than pro-Russian or anti-EU and NATO sentiments. Indeed, a month of August survey showed that energy issues far outweighed refugee and war concerns across political lines, and support for humanitarian aid to Ukraine at 75%. Moreover, even 45% of respondents who said they were against EU integration were in favor of EU countries acting together to support Ukraine. One earlier survey by the same agency indicated increased support for strengthening NATO’s eastern border.
Czechia took over 431,000 Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war, and citizens have donated more than 2 billion crowns aid to Ukraine from July. Despite shifting priorities and gradually growing fatigue with the war and its aftermath, support for pro-Russian foreign policy is likely to remain limited to political fringe in Czechia. As such, a geopolitical shift in Czech foreign policy is highly unlikely, and further protests and election results will be largely driven by domestic concerns over energy and the economy.
All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.