In the second half of 2022, Czech democracy has withstood many challenges, including the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the energy crisis. However, we are witnessing the harsh social impacts of inflation and energy poverty, the mobilization of an anti-system scene, unprecedented discontent with democracy and an alarming rise in distrust in society. The Network's experts propose a set of recommendations on how to tackle current problems.
Experts from the Network for the Protection of Democracy assessed the main trends, risks and opportunities for democracy in eight key areas, based on the events of the second half of 2022. The Czech Republic continued its support for Russia-attacked Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers, and the society withstood a significant rise in energy prices.
However, there was a strong mistrust in Czech society in the first half of the year, as shown by the results of a special report on the Czech public's perception of democracy, prepared by researchers from the STEM Institute for Empirical Research. The survey shows that Czech society is in one of the deepest crises of trust in institutions and other people since the birth of the Czech Republic. This is probably the toll of three years of trials. These crises have exposed the long-term and structural problems of our country.
“The mission of the Network for the Protection of Democracy is to draw attention to important trends in Czech society that may threaten the resilience of our democracy and to highlight what is going well. At this point in time, we fortunately don't have to fear direct pressure on democratic institutions. All the more reason to focus on long-unresolved problems – and strengthen the real capacity of our state to withstand tougher challenges, and boost people's confidence that the state can in fact cope with them. Our experts are proposing recommendations for how to go about this," says Mgr. Vendula Menšíková, the Manager of the Network for the Protection of Democracy.
Let's take a look at the main findings and suggestions on how to improve the situation.
The direct election of the President attracted a great deal of attention in the second half of 2022, which to some extent opened up the question of possible changes to the constitutional status and formal powers of the President of the Republic. It should be appreciated that even people in quarantine or isolation could vote. It should also be highlighted that the Ministry of the Interior had prepared a reform of the office that oversees the fairness of elections.
According to the experts, it would be beneficial to change the term of office of constitutional judges so that there is no significant overlap in the end of terms of office within the same period, as is the case today. At the same time, they point out that women judges should not be overlooked in the selection of constitutional judges.
During the monitored period, the government has chosen to focus on fighting influence operations and the issue of disinformation dissemination. Experts appreciated that the Ministry of Interior has adopted a more participatory approach towards drafting legislation to combat disinformation. The initial vague and – for freedom of speech dangerous – proposal of the Ministry of the Interior was improved as a result. However, the whole agenda is now on the back burner due to the abolition of the position of the Commissioner for the Media and Disinformation and the dismissal of Ing. Michal Klíma.
“The term misinformation is overused and extremely vague. Instead of trying to introduce new criminal offences to combat disinformation, it would be better to opt for less repressive mechanisms to combat this unfortunate information phenomenon. We should focus especially on the field of education,” says legal expert JUDr. Jan Hořeňovský from the H21 Institute.
Experts recommend that the government develop its own strategic communication and support independent media, especially where there is a lack of regional news coverage, for example. “Supporting the media through a one-off sprinkling does not solve anything. We need to explore the possibilities of support used abroad and map media deserts at the local level,” says local media expert doc. Mgr. Lenka Waschkova Císařová Ph.D. from the Masaryk University.
Important reforms – such as the psychiatric care reform, which continues to support large psychiatric institutions at the expense of developing comprehensive community-based psychiatric services – are not progressing. Meanwhile, in 2022, alarming cases were made public showing poor conditions in social and health psychiatric institutions. Experts have long called for the transformation of psychiatric services to fully respect the dignity, autonomy and choice of clients. Therefore, they recommend to speed up the necessary reform and focus special attention on this topic.
“The case of Dorota Š. and many others repeatedly remind us of the need to deinstitutionalize social and psychiatric services. Moreover, the Czech Republic is obliged to do so due to its ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Only social and psychiatric services that respect dignity and human rights, provided by professionals that enjoy decent working conditions, can prevent the tragedies we have repeatedly witnessed,” says Mgr. Šárka Dušková, expert on social issues.
On a positive note, Czech support to Ukraine remained high in the second half of 2022 and political unity within the EU and NATO was maintained. However, the sanctions system against the Russian Federation should be more robust and effective – they need to be enforced better and their circumvention prevented.
The government's response to the confluence of several crises can be considered more or less adequate. In the area of the energy crisis, it should be noted that its full impact was not felt to its full effect in the Czech Republic during the period under review, although even then its consequences were hitting particularly those with lower incomes disproportionately. However, the second half of 2022 also saw a massive mobilization of the disinformation scene.
“For many people, loyalty to democracy depends on their economic success. If they are concerned with how to survive and pay their electricity bills, any other issues become remote,” says security expert Mgr. Jan Charvát M.A. Ph.D..
The Czech Republic also still continues to suffer from vulnerabilities in the supply of gas, oil and other key raw materials. Experts say steps must be taken to strengthen the resilience of key sectors of the Czech economy and continue to diversify the supply of strategic raw materials.
We continue to see a failure of strategic governance, whereby the state administration, following a political brief, addresses only current issues (and those attractive to voters)and does not place sufficient emphasis on solving long-term problems. The solution to this may be, for example, to strengthen the role of the Government Office in the overall coordination of demanding tasks that span beyond the capabilities of individual ministries.
“The state administration does not handle well agendas that require effective cooperation of three or more ministries, and this is significant in the area of public social services, such as housing support, health and social care, pension reform and others,” comments Prof. PhDr. Martin Potůček CSc., MSc., an expert on public administration and public policy.
Despite efforts to streamline, the Czech state administration is very inflexible – as shown, for example, by the delay in the payment of social benefits. Moreover, benefits are generally not an effective tool of support: many people that find themselves in difficult life situations do not know what benefits to apply for and how to do it; moreover, benefits are often paid late. It is time for the public administration to be able to see and understand the needs of citizens and address them effectively – by improving its services and communicating better with citizens.
Experts also responded to the proposal to merge municipalities, which according to them is not going in a good direction. Expected savings, according to the specialists, would likely be swallowed up by transaction costs and perhaps an increase in the cost of vacant councilors.
One of the negative trends in the justice sector is the tense relationship between the Minister of Justice and the prosecutors. Minister Pavel Blažek (ODS) has long been teetering on the very edge of his powers with regard to the Public Prosecutor's Office. Among other things, he has demanded information about the prosecutors overseeing the cases of his party colleagues from Brno. While the minister has paid increased attention to these cases, the necessary computerisation of the Judiciary has not progressed, judicial staff salaries remain low, and a new decree on the selection of judges forces candidates to make difficult tactical choices and discourages competition.
In the second half of 2022, the Ministry of Justice also submitted the draft amendment to the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act, which continues to allow the government to dismiss the Chief Prosecutor at any time without the need to provide a reason. In addition, the draft also opened the door to candidates without prosecutorial experience, which the Experts also find problematic.
The Czech state successfully managed the presidency of the Council of the EU in turbulent times and was one of the leaders in helping Ukraine. Civil society continues to contribute to the integration of refugees from Ukraine into Czech society, and the state has succeeded in increasingly involving experts from the state administration and NGOs in this process. However, data in the areas of housing, labor market, education and language training show gaps that need to be addressed early – while measures are relatively less costly and can deliver quick results.
The government of Petr Fiala (ODS) has strengthened its focus on the human rights agenda during this period. The Prime Minister appointed a Commissioner for Human Rights, Klára Šimáčková Laurenčíková, and a Government Commissioner for Roma Minority Affairs, Lucie Fuková. Since last year, Romani women who have been unlawfully sterilized have been able to claim compensation from the state. The Commissioner for Human Rights initiated a meeting between representatives of key ministries and student representatives of the Strike for Climate. All this can be counted among the positives in the field of human rights.
A resilient civil society is crucial for democracy. The crisis has shown that the state tends to rely on civil society when the chips are down, but in calmer times the state is far from systematic in its approach to cooperation with NGOs and their support. Inconsistent mechanisms for participation at the national level make access to information and decision-making difficult, especially in case of complex processes such as the National Recovery Plan and the effective use of EU funds. Appropriate setup of participation processes could lead to better quality outcomes. According to the experts, clear mechanisms for cooperation across ministries need to be set up.
Another problem described by the experts of the Network for the Protection of Democracy is the complicated and often ex post funding of NGOs which provide, for example, services to vulnerable groups of citizens from public resources.
“Inflation and rising energy prices place greater demands on the financial security of NGOs. It is therefore extremely important that subsidies for public services and NGO activities take into account the current economic and social situation and are paid on time and not only later in the calendar year, as has long been the informal practice,” says Marta Smolíková, a human rights expert.
The Czech Network for the Protection of Democracy was established in 2020 in response
to fears of democratic backsliding and shrinking civic space in the CEE region. The Network connects more than 80 leading experts with civil society from across the country, as well as
a wide spectrum of opinion. Together they monitor trends, opportunities and threats to the rule of law, human rights and civil society. Engaged civil society organizations, companies, informal groups and individuals form an active network equipped with an online platform to share information and mobilise.
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