5 lessons for Israel from the Czech struggle for democracy

Op-eds / Israel and Europe

At a joint panel of the Mitvim Institute and the Institute of International Relations in Prague (IIR), Czech researchers from different backgrounds discussed the successful struggle against former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, and the similarities and differences that can be drawn to Israel.

The Israeli government’s obsessive focus on promoting the judicial overhaul has led to a loss of overall control: failures in preventing security escalation, rockets in the North and South, the cooling of the normalization process, economic uncertainty, fear of credit rating downgrade, and a crisis with the United States. These are just the tip of the iceberg of a series of frustrating, confusing and fearful moves.

Amid all of this, there is only one success worthy of Benjamin Netanyahu’s credit – the tightening of the ranks in Israel’s liberal camp, its expansion. One can just look at the weekly protests to understand that this is a pivotal and historic moment for democracy, liberalism and equality.

While the protests have successfully led to the suspension of the government’s oppressive actions, the road to achieving their goals is still long. Against this backdrop, the Mitvim Institute has launched “The Liberal Partnership” initiative, with the aim of promoting learning processes and mutual influence between liberal civil society organizations in Israel and around the world.

As part of this, Mitvim and IIR conducted an experts panel, focused on the determined and successful campaign of Czech civil society against democratic backsliding. The analysis of the Czech case highlights a number of lessons that every liberal camp should take into account.

Democratic roots: Prior to the notorious billionaire Andrej Babis’s rise as prime minister in December 2017, the Czech Republic enjoyed a stable and inspiring democratic tradition for a country that until the early 1990s was part of the Communist bloc. Unlike its neighbors in Eastern Europe, the democratic tradition is an inseparable part of the Czech identity historically, due to the creation of a wide secular and working middle class.

According to Karel Kouba, an associate professor of political science at Hradec Kralove University, this tradition prevented the Czech Republic from a fate similar to that of Poland and Hungary. In fact, since 1993, there has not been a significant political camp in the Czech Republic based on nationalist and religious forces.

However, in 2017 the winds changed, and Andrej Babis was elected after leading a divisive populist, anti-establishment campaign. He began to promote his economic interests while attempting to weaken the guardians of democracy and faced widespread opposition.

Civil society and the media even encouraged a criminal investigation against him on suspicion of embezzling European Union funds. His attempts to suppress democracy were hesitant in relation to the activism shown by his opponents, and after just one term, his government was replaced.

From protest to political power

Petra Guasti, an associate professor of democratic theory at Charles University, argues that the liberal camp must not disconnect the center from the periphery, and that there is crucial importance to the presence of the struggle outside of major cities. To that end, the consensus for democracy needs to be as broad as possible.

However, protests on their own are not enough. Guasti argues that they must be translated into political power through the creation of a broad coalition of different parties that agree on one singular goal: to defend liberal democracy at any cost. Ultimately, the success of the struggle must be reflected in changes to voting patterns in the ballot boxes.

Unified and focused messaging: According to Gusti, the most effective way to defeat populism is to put aside disagreements on other issues, unite around a unified message, and sharpen it. Without liberal democracy, the government cannot create effective policies on various issues for the benefit of its citizens.

Since populism feeds on the division between “us” and “them,” it is up to liberal forces to create the widest possible political tent, even at the cost of difficult compromises. Many forget that compromises are part of the democratic game, and when we reject them, there is a chance of pushing different communities toward a populist leader.

The ability of the liberal camp to accommodate a wide range of opinions and political positions, while being willing to come together under a joint effort to preserve liberal democracy, is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for success in the struggle.

Moral power: the successes of Czech civil society did not stem from nothing. Another significant ingredient was the establishment of connections and influence with partners in other countries, notably Hungary and Poland. Through these relationships, the mistakes and difficulties in the struggles of Hungary and Poland were shared and understood. Alongside the construction of an international liberal-civil alliance, every liberal camp should look inward and examine the essence of its actions.

Jaromír Mazák, a sociologist and research director at the STEM Institute for Czech Society Research, believes that another significant component of success is understanding the moral power of civil society. For example, the Czech public was able to distinguish between honoring their court’s ruling to acquit Babis, and the moral arguments surrounding his conduct and the reason for his prosecution. Despite his acquittal, Babis continued to be perceived as unethical, which ultimately led to the end of his rule.

Local victories: The Million Moments for Democracy movement managed to create protest infrastructures in central cities and in peripheral regions, translating them into political power through close collaboration with opposition parties. These parties were divided into two coalitions – one more conservative and the other progressive – but their goal was the same: to establish liberal democracy. This collaboration gave hope that the two sides could jointly form a government that would ensure the protection of liberal democracy.

The challenge in Israel is greater

If we learn lessons from the Czech case, it becomes clear that Israeli civil society must emphasize the righteousness of its cause beyond the borders of Tel Aviv, and assertively create a meaningful political force that can compete with the oppressive strength of populism and nationalism.

To do so, Israeli civil society must learn to build a broad political coalition that regards liberal democracy as its guiding principle. Compromises are part of the democratic game, and if one wants to win the ballot box, one must take them into account.

Despite Israel’s rich democratic tradition, the current state of affairs for the liberal camp is darker than that in the Czech Republic. The issues of occupation and Jewish supremacy impede the wheels of the legal revolution. Kouba notes that the mere fact that the Netanyahu government has begun to reduce democratic space indicates deeper steps toward authoritarian rule than those taken by Babis. In addition, Israeli society’s heterogeneity is rife with other important issues and topics that could lead to divisions.

In the face of Netanyahu’s government’s divisiveness, a positive and unifying campaign must be launched around the importance of liberal democracy for all citizens of the country. In addition to domestic political activity, Israeli civil society must strive to establish relationships of influence, support and shared knowledge with its counterparts around the world. Democratic regression is not unique to Israel alone, and there is much to learn from our global partners.

This article is from The Jerusalem Post, from March 8th, 2023.

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