The young Czechs and politics: indifference hidden behind smartphones, annoyance and glowing confidence in the destinies of the economy and the market

“It was half past three and on the pavement near Wenceslas square there was a group of punks sitting, and a young cop, of the same age, was browsing through the identity card of one of them with trembling hands, on a bench there were their instruments in their cases and they were indeed punks, but from the eyes a smile and calmness were beaming…”. It was 1989 and the old Hrabal was walking through the streets of Prague admiring the proud youth, who raised their heads and challenged the regime, while trying to recover the freedom and the future they deserved. They did so, in November of that very year. The Velvet Revolution was the victory of the Czechoslovak youth, who took the chance of a “western” life from the Party. In short, democracy. The youth of twenty years ago have grown up since, society has changed, politics made it free and since it has deteriorated again.
The twenty-year-old students of ‘68 were the engine of the Prague Spring, just as twenty-year-old crowned Václav Havel President of the post-communist Czechoslovakia. Twenty years are not few. Today, however, the Czech in his/her twenties, is precisely what is lacking from the discussion on the res publica.

According to the surveys, two out of three people under 26, claim to have no interest in politics. It is the great silent mass, compliant, the perfect consumer. Few questions, few protests, laptops, smartphones, correct English, hi-tech knowledge and international education. There are exceptions, some university groups or wealthy entrepreneurs under 30, affiliated with the youth sections of a party, the ubiquitous politicized factions in the extreme right or anti-globalization left, but overall do not undermine the now fixed image, of the young apathetic, disinterested Czech, who has better things to do.

This image does not describe only the political realm, but in general the social life of a generation that loses interest in the community. In the post-communist period, for example, religion has become steadily less and less important for those aged between 15 and 30, as reported in a study by sociologists Petr Sak and Karolina Saková. In a nutshell, the youth was more catholic when it was inconvenient to be so, compared to now when it is more welcomed. It is regarding politics however, where the scholars research brings crystal clear results. In recent years, fewer and fewer Czechs have identified themselves with a theory attributable to the four major areas of political philosophy: conservatism, liberalism, socialism and marxism. There are more and more people who find no interest in any.

The association Člověk v tísni (People in need), have been trying to reverse the trend. They are an NGO active in various issues in the social field, organizing the student vote in schools , a sort of “dress rehearsal” for teenagers between 15 and 18 years old, with political parties and candidates of national elections. In 2012, for the regional ones, 170 schools had open seats and young people had cast their vote, the results are not devoid of interest, and a hint of warning. The Pirate Party won with 20.6% (before reaching 2% in the elections themselves), while worryingly, third place and more than 10% of the vote went to the pro-Nazi party DSSS. The turnout, however, did not reach 20%. In December last year the students were engaged in presidential elections, also here confirming a certain distance from the “senior” results. The winner was the eccentric professor Vladimír Franz, tattooed from head to toe, an intellectual of evident charm among teenagers, who with 40%, destroyed the other boring candidates.

For the presidentials, meanwhile, the number of schools participating was up to 441: an encouraging sign from the education world, which of course has its own responsibilities in the political apathy of the younger generation.

Going back to the elections according to the law, the last attempt to collect this great unvoiced potential came last winter, again during the presidential election period, in the electoral campaign of Karel Schwarzenberg, who focused on young people, and to a certain extent, especially in Prague, had considerable success. Everyone remembers the badges of the elderly aristocrat as a punk, with a crest of hair worthy of the Sex Pistols.

“But that was not political, it was marketing!” says Daniel, one of the many young people we spoke to in the last few weeks in the streets of the capital, while researching the issue. Daniel is a Spanish expat, who like many foreigners, is intrigued and surprised by the apathy of his local peers.

“The political proposals of Schwarzenberg did not count, but the brand was impressive. They were telling me, “look how cool this poster is!” and I was left perplexed”. Nothing left to add. The youthful look conceived by David Černý for the old prince made an impact but said little.

Petr, Pražák, a student at the academy of cinema (enclave in which you usually play it safe, to find at least the radical chic intellectuals), tells us how in 2012 some colleagues organized protests against tuition fees suggested, also backed by Schwarzenberg , and the following year they had all the “Karel is not dead” badges. It was fashionable. Then, when earlier this summer Schwarzenberg again, having been defeated in the presidential elections, launched his “forum”, a think tank for the new generation, he found about fifty people to listen to him: in short, a flop.

In partial defense of the Bohemian and Moravian twenty-year olds, sociologists inform us that the decline in interest towards politics in the new generations, is common throughout the Western world, where it goes without saying that there is a huge, inert electoral void, but also a worrying question mark on the future national politics. “It’s the corruption that bothers us, the image that the politicians give of themselves is depressing”, the words of Honza, 26, a student in computer science. “I would not say that we are disinterested, we would all like a country run by honest people, good facilities, a quiet town…”. But that is ethics, civic education, while politics collect a wider system of economic social, and cultural theories. “However, it does not work anymore in this way”, the discussion in the beer garden of Letná collects new opinions, “the economy is on its own, let’s leave it in the hands of those who have studied”. For Kristýna it is very simple: Communism is the past, the market is the future, economists will know what to do. Hoping for a bit of honesty… The speech seems convincing, it’s back to beers, to skateboards. Some people’s interest had even grown, before becoming disillusioned with a smoky world, as is the case with Tereza, a Moravian art student, who collaborates with the association Letná sobě! for the livability of Prague 7, her neighborhood. From the recent protests over the construction of the shopping centre a few steps from the park Stromovka she says “I got to see our politicians up close, who came to talk to us, they said two meaningless sentences and they left. It is a hypocritical world”. At the last elections she was abroad as an Erasmus student, but admits: “For me it would have been difficult to find a candidate to vote for”.

One wonders if the young Czechs are really disinterested, or perhaps, like Tereza, just do not find possibilities. We talk to Ondra on the tram to Žižkov, and tip the balance towards the former. He is a twenty-seven year old native of Opava, as pharmacy student has lived in Sardinia and in Spain, and is now a researcher in the laboratories of Dejvice. “When I arrived in Cagliari I was more than surprised that every day at the university bar I would see the guys talking about this or that politician, not to mention the protests, the debates, the mess…”, and here? “With my friends I would talk about free climbing!” he laughs. While the tram rattles uphill, he tells us of another episode. “Take the 1968 Spring. At school you do not study it at all. To find out more, I began to collect books on the subject. I was angry to not know the history of my country, and to not have the chance to get an idea of our past. Also adults have difficulties to face certain subjects”. The tram doors open and the question remains: when will the Prague citizens in their twenties return to the streets to protest? “When things go wrongv, the researcher from Opava concludes while greeting us, “for now we are fine”.

by Giuseppe Picheca