BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Background to the election in Czech: pre 1998 and after
HITS: 1994 | 14-04-2005, 04:13 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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Many of the tensions that infect the Czech political landscape date back to 1997. The Civil Democratic Party (ODS) had won the parliamentary election in 1996, but with a reduced majority. The party formed a coalition government with the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) but the latter withdrew its support in November 1997 after the ODS became engulfed by financial scandals. Later that year, disaffected members of the ODS attempted to take over the party. But the plan failed when former dissident, Jan Ruml, failed to dislodge Václav Klaus as leader of the ODS in December that year. In January 1998, Ruml and others who had also left the ODS, founded a new party, the Freedom Union, Unie Svobody (US).

To overcome the impasse that resulted from the collapse of the coalition, an agreement was reached whereby the president would appoint an interim government on condition that parliamentary elections are held in June 1998. This government, led by a new prime minister, the head of the Czech National Bank, Josef Tošovský contained many of the ODS dissidents now in the US. The government of ‘experts’, as it was termed, was praised by international financial institutions; it was also very much to President Havel’s taste too - no doubt as its non-political character fitted his vision of anti-politics (hostility to political parties).

1998 Election and after

The June 1998 parliamentary election was won by the Social Democrats (ČSSD) with 32% of the vote - not enough for them to govern alone. The ODS came a surprisingly high second with 28%. Allegations of corruption had, therefore, failed to relegate the party to the political wilderness. After the June poll, ČSSD party leader Miloš Zeman conducted long negotiations with smaller parties to try to form a coalition government. It was assumed his partners would be from the small Freedom Union (US) making for a strange set of bedfellows as the ČSSD is a conventional centre-left party while the US’s profile is fiercely free market. But Zeman was unprepared to give in to the US’s demands for leading posts in the future government so, he halted negotiations with the party and turned to Václav Klaus and the ODS to forge an ‘opposition’ agreement under the terms of which Klaus became chairman of parliament and the ODS agreed, under certain conditions, not to collapse the minority ČSSD government.

While the agreement ended the political stalemate it was to come under constant attack during the following four years both from the sidelined elite in the Freedom Union (and its backers in the media) and from President Havel and his group of advisors, commonly referred to as the ‘Castle Group’ (Prague Castle is the seat of the Czech president). In an effort to widen its political base the US joined the KDU and two other smaller parties (the ODA and DEU) to form the Quad coalition in February 2000. At one stage opinion polls stated that the Quad was the most popular party-formation in the Czech Republic.

As the century drew to its close, attacks on Czech politicians for their ‘corruption’ continued. The media now began to target the bona fides of ČSSD politicians, many of whom were also accused of corruption and other forms of skulduggery. In July 1999 a group of the disaffected Czech elite signed a document called Impuls 99 whose profile was, no doubt, intended to revive memories of Charter 77. As usual, the complaints were about the venality of politicians and the need for more direct action from citizens. The two leading lights behind Impuls were a political analyst, Jiří Pehe, a former advisor to President Havel and Catholic priest, Tomáš Hálik, who was also close to the president. Although Havel himself did not directly endorse Impuls, his wife Dagmar was among the signatories of the document. In doing this she clearly stepped beyond the boundaries of her role as wife of a non-executive president. Criticism of Cherie Blair (wife of Great Britain’s executive prime minister) for remarks about the causes of Palestinian violence pale into insignificance compared with the blatant politicizing of Mrs. Havel, although this has never raised eyebrows in the Western press.

As 1999 drew to a close, another anti-politician movement under the clumsy name Děkujeme, odejděte (Thank you – now leave) emerged to lead several large demonstrations in Prague. Like Impuls, its organizers attacked conventional political arrangements. But the movement soon ran out of steam. As the raison d’etre of its activities was hostility to the political establishment, it could hardly transform itself into a political party. Without any definable programmed, the movement died away.

Then in late 2000 another scandal broke out, this time over the appointment of a former BBC journalist, George Hodac, to run Czech TV. Hodac was accused - without any evidence - of being close to Václav Klaus. Outraged journalists at Czech TV went on strike to protest political interference in the running of the station and large demonstrations took place in Prague. The situation only calmed down when Hodac resigned and a new director was appointed. [see: Czech Republic 2001: Turmoil at Czech TV: Principle or Politics?] Then, later in 2001 attempts were made to oust Vladimír Železný from his post as director of the Czech Republic’s leading independent TV station, Nova. While the background to the attacks on Železný consisted of complicated and arcane legal issues rather than easily digestible allegations of political bias, many suspected that his real fault was to favour the ODS on Nova. [The Czech media: One Year On] While voting in the June 2002 election was underway, Mr. Železný effectively lost control of the station.

As the 2002 election timetable approached it was too late to break the opposition agreement by extra-parliamentary means. People were exhibiting fickleness: the crowds that had demanded the resignation of George Hodac and non-politicization of the media had dispersed. Many suspected that the whole strike at Czech TV had been manipulated from the start. Even the monotonous toll of the corruption bell had not prevented the ODS from leading the opinion polls until the eve of the election. Commentators suggested that the party’s last minute fall in support was partly due to the resignation of the ODS mayor of Prague, Jan Kasl, on 28th May. Kasl claimed that rampant corruption in the city council (of which he provided no details whatsoever) had led him to resign. According to The Prague Post, Kasl was “very popular” which, on further examination, meant that he had opened the doors to a handful of large foreign investors, one of which - the firm Accenture - is Arthur Andersen’s former consulting arm. Perhaps his resignation was fortuitous after all.

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