PRAGUE, Czech Republic — It began as a form of political pranksterism, with a lone protester pelting eggs at the leader of the Social Democratic Party.
But what started out as a limited outburst of hostility — against Jiri Paroubek, during a campaign stop two weeks ago for the European parliamentary elections — has this week erupted into the most violent political demonstrations since the revolution that ended communism in 1989.
The initial attack on Paroubek was followed on subsequent campaign stops by more egg-throwing attacks, though nothing like what transpired this week. On Wednesday, at a rally in the capital, an entire stage-full of Social Democratic Party (CSSD) leaders was pelted with dozens of eggs.
Even President Vaclav Klaus, known for his own pugnacious style of governing, called the assault "a threat to democracy,” while politicians and political observers said the incident recalled a violent time in the country’s past.
The anger stems from the fall of the rightist government in a vote of no confidence two months ago, coinciding with the country's turn hosting the rotating presidency of the European Union.
But even the instigators of the initial attacks — CSSD opponents who used a Facebook page titled "Eggs for Paroubek," which in two short weeks attracted more than 50,000 supporters — acknowledged that protesters had gone too far. They shut down the page.
According to Jan Hartl, director of one of the country’s top polling agencies, the attacks have “scared a lot of people, who are asking about the level of political culture in this country, and whether this will become a pattern.”
Ivan Pilip, a government minister in the 1990s, also expressed concern: “It makes me a bit nervous. In the beginning it was maybe even funny — as a bit of a joke — but the last attack was really heavy, and if it continues it could lead to political fights that existed in the '30s but shouldn't exist at the beginning of the 21st century.”
In the 1930s, the Nazis used radio to inflame political passions among ethnic Germans — especially the young — living in then-Czechoslovakia. The result was a division of the country along ethnic lines, which eventually led to the break-up of Czechoslovakia as a prelude to World War II. Today, the internet is the main tool used to foment political hooliganism.
This week, the organizer of the "Eggs for Paroubek" Facebook page said he was appalled at what had transpired. Likewise, the original egg-thrower sought to put an end to the violence by symbolically placing a box of eggs at the site where he first pelted the CSSD leader.
According to the Czech New Agency, a note reading, "We lay the eggs and we go to vote," accompanied the box.
But it remains to be seen whether the genie can be put back in its bottle.
Paroubek has accused the leading right-wing party of being behind the provocation, a charge the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) denies. Regardless of whether the egg-throwing attacks were the work of an ODS party member or a spontaneous public reaction to the CSSD leader, there is also a growing consensus that continued violence against Paroubek could backfire politically.
"For ODS it's not bad that this happened, but it would be bad if it continues,” Pilip said.
In a country that historically sees itself as a perpetual victim of bullying by bigger powers, sympathy for victims is part of the collective psychology.
“Czech voters can start supporting someone who is under too strong an attack,” Pilip explained. “If people don't like someone but (he) is attacked too much they start to see him as a victim and they support victims.”
Indeed, the Social Democrats may be banking on just such a public reaction. Far from hiding the seeming embarrassment of being bombarded with eggs, the Social Democrats' website is prominently featuring pictures of the egg-soaked leaders, under the caption: “We reject violence and vulgarity.”
The run-up to the European parliamentary elections on June 5 and June 6 will tell whether society as a whole follows that idea.
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