May 19, 2010

Czechs’ Commitment to Free Markets and Democracy Stays Strong Amidst Troubled Economic and Political Waters

A fall 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found broad-based Czech discontent with the country’s economic situation and the way democracy is working. Nonetheless, the data also showed a strong commitment among Czechs to free markets and democratic values. Moreover, Czechs ranked high among their peers in the region in terms of happiness with the transition to free market economics and multiparty politics.

Broad Dissatisfaction with Country Direction and Economy

As of fall 2009, seven-in-ten (70%) Czechs were dissatisfied with the way things were going in their country. Roughly eight-in-ten (81%) described the current economic situation in the Czech Republic as somewhat or very bad, with many (32%) saying very bad.

Czech economic discontent is consistent with public sentiment throughout the region: majorities in all former Eastern bloc countries polled rated their current economic situation as bad. This view was particularly widespread in Hungary (94%), Lithuania (93%) and Ukraine (91%) while least common, but still prevalent, in Russia (68%) and Poland (59%).

Support for Free Markets

Despite its recent drop in economic growth and rise in unemployment and inflation, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) Czechs approved of the change from a state-controlled to a free market economy in the post-communist period. Of the other publics surveyed in the region, only east Germans (82%) rivaled Czechs in their support for free markets.

Czech enthusiasm for free markets is only slightly less widespread now than in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism. In a 1991 Times Mirror Center (the forerunner to the Pew Research Center) survey conducted just months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 87% of Czechs approved of the change to a capitalist economic system.

Support for free markets has also barely changed since the early 1990s in Russia (-4 percentage points), East Germany (-4 points) and Slovakia (-3 points). By contrast, capitalism is far less favored now in Hungary (-34 points), Lithuania (-26 points), Bulgaria (-20 points) and Ukraine (-16 points).

Still, Czechs are divided as to whether open markets have yet to deliver benefits to the average person. When asked to consider whether the economic situation for most people today is better, worse or about the same as it was under communism, 45% of Czechs said better while 39% said worse. Even so, the Czech Republic and Poland stand apart from other former communist states in that they were the only countries in which a plurality said people are better off today economically than under communism.

In another sign of Czech support for free markets, 63% agreed that people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people may be rich while others are poor; 33% disagreed. Only the Poles (70%) registered greater enthusiasm for free markets in general, though Slovaks (56%) and Russians (52%) were not far behind.

Dissatisfaction with Democracy and Politics in Practice

When asked to assess the current state of democracy in their country, roughly half (49%) in the Czech Republic said they were satisfied with how it was working while about half (49%) said they were dissatisfied. Among publics in the region, only Poles (53%) and Slovaks (50%) were generally as satisfied with democracy in their country, while discontent dominated in Lithuania (60% dissatisfied), Russia (61%), Ukraine (70%), Bulgaria (76%) and Hungary (77%).

But Czechs also saw a gap between most of the democratic values they embrace and the political realities in their country. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) in the Czech Republic considered it very important to live in a country “where there is a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way.” Solid majorities of Czechs also said it is very important to reside in a country with a free media (66%) and multiparty elections (57%), while nearly half held the same view about freedom of speech (47%) and religion (46%). Slightly more than one-third (36%) said it is very important to live in a country “where the military is under the control of civilian leaders.”

However, fewer Czechs are convinced that their country embraces these democratic elements. For example, only 5% felt that the phrase “there is a judicial system that treats everyone in the same way” described their country very well. Similarly, only 17% thought that the phrase “the media is able to report the news without government censorship” described the Czech Republic very well.

The gap between what the Czechs want and have in terms of their electoral system is smaller. More than half (57%) said that it is very important to live in a country “with honest elections that are held regularly with a choice of at least two political parties;” 48% felt that this described elections in their country very well.

Faith in the electoral system does not translate into faith in politicians. Few Czechs (18%) agreed with the statement “most elected officials care what people like me think,” down from 34% in 1991. Moreover, the European Union’s Eurobarometer surveys conducted from the fall of 2001 through the fall of 2009 show only 10-15% of Czechs placed trust in political parties.

The same set of Eurobarometer surveys show that Czech distrust extended to government as well as to political parties in recent years. However, trust in government increased after the spring 2009 collapse of the Czech ruling political coalition and subsequent formation of a non-partisan-led interim government. Between June 2009 and October 2009, Eurobarometer data show Czech trust in government rising from 28% to 37%.

 Commitment to Democracy

Despite concerns about politicians and about the current state of democracy more generally, most Czechs (80%) approved of the change from a one-party to a multiparty system that took place in the early 1990s. Elsewhere in the region, support for the political changes was also strong; majorities in all of the former Eastern European publics surveyed except Ukraine embraced the move to competitive politics. But, only the east Germans (85%) edged Czechs out in support of the move to a competitive election system.

Czech approval of the change to a multiparty system is as widespread now as in 1991 when 80% embraced competitive elections. Similarly, support for the political changes slightly increased in Poland (+4 percentage points) and remained steady in Slovakia (+1 point).

Enthusiasm for these political changes has dimmed substantially in Ukraine (-42 percentage points), Bulgaria (-24 points), Lithuania (-20 points) and Hungary (-18 points) and somewhat in East Germany (-6 points) and Russia (-8 points).

The Czech public also clearly felt that a democratic government is better able to solve their country’s problems (81%) than can a strong leader (15%). Slovaks (81%) were equally as convinced, while 56% held the same view in Poland. By contrast, majorities or pluralities in Ukraine (69%), Bulgaria (68%), Russia (60%), Hungary (49%), and Lithuania (49%) said that a strong leader is better able to solve their country’s problems.

Czechs trust that a system of competitive elections gives ordinary citizens an opportunity to influence what government does. Roughly six-in-ten Czechs (61%) agreed with the statement that “voting gives people like me some say about how the government runs things.” Czech faith in the ability of elections to give voice to the people is nearly as common now as it was following the fall of the Berlin Wall (64%). Among the Eastern European nations surveyed in 2009, only Bulgarians (66%) are more convinced of the capacity of elections to give people influence over government.