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Protests in Prague: will price caps sway the public?

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Protests in Prague: will price caps sway the public?

Will price caps sway the public

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

On September 3, approximately 70,000 protesters gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Petr Fiala and for the ruling coalition to curb energy prices. Event organizers stated that demonstrations would be repeated on September 28 if the government does not resign.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Price caps on energy will likely not preclude further demonstrations in the near- to medium-term

– The government will stay in power, but elections could lead to minor shifts in the Senate that echo those seen at the municipal level

– Czechia’s foreign policy vector is highly unlikely to shift, and public sentiment will continue to be influenced most by economic and energy issues

EXPENSIVE ENERGY, DOMESTIC DILEMMAS

Some far-right and fringe groups that participated in organizing the September 3 protest in Prague called for ensuring gas imports from Russia and military neutrality. Prime Minister Fiala characterized the protest as arranged by pro-Russian forces and fed on Russian propaganda. These and other key far-right and -left parties participating in the demonstration fell beneath the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation in the last election.

Although energy prices have fallen slightly in the days since the protest, Czechia’s electricity and gas were among Europe’s highest in terms of purchasing power parity in August 2022. On September 13, the Czech government announced it had agreed to cap gas and electricity prices for households to 3 and 6 crowns per kilowatt hour, respectively, paid for through an energy sector windfall tax and state-owned company dividends. 

Prior to this month’s protest, the ruling coalition had just survived a vote of no-confidence in connection with energy and inflation issues as well as undergone a corruption scandal involving a former deputy mayor from key ruling coalition party STAN.

PRICE CAPS AND PUBLIC PERCEPTION

As the Czech Senate and municipal elections were approaching on September 23 and 24 ‒ presented as a referendum on the current leadership by opposition parties  ‒  Prime Minister Fiala has upped his communications efforts on energy and other hot-button issues. In a televised address on September 18 Fiala spoke about energy price caps and called on Czech residents to conserve energy. Nevertheless, major municipal wins for opposition party candidates in most major cities on the 25th indicates widespread public disapproval for Fiala and his government as well as their lack of success in communicating with the public on policy.

Misinformation and miscommunication has already become a key political issue in the last month, with many distorting and/or perceiving Fiala’s comments about the Wenceslas Square protests as dismissing all of its participants (rather than its organizers) and their concerns as exclusively pro-Russian. What’s more, although the energy price cap is set to keep prices lower than current levels, they are still several times higher than previous years. In a June statement, Fiala estimated the government’s long-term plan to reduce dependence on gas from Russia by expanding renewables, LNG ports, and gas supplies from EU countries would take two to five years and bring with it spikes in energy prices.

The slow pace of this transition coupled with insufficient measures and communication on energy prices could continue to drive public dissatisfaction in the near- to medium-term.  If the government is not successful in appeasing the public, this will likely lead to (albeit minor) losses in the Senate and additional protests. A few notable wins for opposition and independent candidates in the first round of Senate elections seem to reflect this trend. However, the election will decide the fate of only one third of the seats, and the ruling party is set to retain control of the Senate no matter the outcome.

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Playing the long game

Despite the signal sent by voters this month, the contest that is likely to have the most direct effect on the Prime Minister and his coalition are the elections for the Chamber of Deputies, which will not take place until 2025. Only this lower house of parliament has the power to hold a no-confidence vote, which the opposition may call in the wake of the recent and ongoing elections and is more immediately of concern to the Fiala government. However, as with the previous vote in early September, the opposition does not currently have enough seats to form a government, nor enough votes to oust the current ruling coalition. The only party that local observers identify as at all likely to leave the ruling coalition, the Pirates, would still leave the current majority intact even without that party’s four seats. As with the recent price caps, popular dissatisfaction will continue to nudge the current leadership on domestic policy, but is unlikely to oust the government in the near term. With the protesters’ deadline of September 25 unmet, the promised follow-on demonstration in Wenceslas Square is likely to take place (although with a somewhat lower turnout).

WILL PUBLIC PROTESTS PROMPT FOREIGN POLICY SHIFT

Despite the pro-Russian views of the event’s organizers, local political observers contend that many protesters at the Wenceslas Square demonstrations were motivated by economic and energy issues rather than pro-Russian or anti- EU and NATO sentiments. Indeed, an August poll showed energy issues as far outweighing refugee- and war-related concerns across political lines, and support for humanitarian aid to Ukraine at 75%. What’s more, even 45% of respondents who reported being against EU integration were in favor of the EU countries acting together to support Ukraine. An earlier poll by the same agency indicated increased support for strengthening NATO’s Eastern border.

Czechia has taken in over 431,000 Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war, and citizens have donated over 2 billion crowns in aid to Ukraine as of July. Despite evolving priorities and gradually growing fatigue with the war and its consequences, support for pro-Russian external policy is likely to remain limited to the political fringe in Czechia. As such, a geopolitical shift in Czechia’s foreign policy is highly improbable, and further demonstrations and election outcomes will be largely motivated by domestic concerns about energy and the economy.

 Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.

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