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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Election in Czech Republic 2002: details of the campaign
HITS: 2120 | 14-04-2005, 05:01 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
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The election campaign was low key. Czech TV fulfilled its duties and broadcast the parties’ election programmes. However, the print media was generally hostile to the ODS – as pointed out, it is the second most popular party in the Czech Republic (and the one that led in opinion polls until weeks before the election) yet it has no newspaper outlet.

Fewer posters were on display than in 1998 and most were dull and uninspiring. The most unappealing posters were those of the ODS which featured close-up shots of Václav Klaus whose cold, steely eyes peered over sinister rimless glasses – hardly a heart-warming image. The party also covered lamp posts and walls in Prague with silly leaflets warning of a return to proto-Communist rule if the ČSSD returned to power.

Perhaps Mr. Klaus’s biggest campaign error was to make telephone calls to 100,000 homes urging voters to support the ODS. Whereas such tactics have worked in the United Sates because 1 in 100 callers, might find the real presidential candidate – Bill Clinton say – on the end of the line, Mr. Klaus’s voice was merely pre-recorded. Unsolicited phone calls tend to go down like a lead balloon everywhere whether from double glazing salesmen or political party leaders.

No doubt, the party’s election advisors decided to concentrate on the personality of Mr. Klaus, a tactic that was deemed to have worked in 1998. But, even though the former prime minister is more popular and respected than the circle around President Havel would admit, he has still been around for a long time. The ODS should have been reassuring its constituency of voters that it had other, younger talent waiting in the wings.

However, until late in the day the ODS led in the opinion polls – in the first week of May the party had widened its lead, according to TNS Factum, to 30.4% as against 24.9% for the ČSSD. It is strange that this lead collapsed when it did in late May/early June as debate over unpopular issues, like repeal of the Beneš Decrees, which Mr. Klaus opposed more vocally than any other leading politician, had reached its height. No new scandals had emerged either to damage the ODS apart from the vague, unspecified allegations made by Prague mayor Kasl.

But perhaps the polls were themselves untrustworthy. The leading pollsters, Jan Herzmann, managing director of Taylor Nelson Sofres Factum and Jan Hartl of STEM had both signed Impuls 99 along with members of the US. This may explain the enthusiasm shown by both agencies for the fortunes of the Coalition which, according to their data, was polling at 16% (TNS) and 18% (STEM) one week before the election. The same polls put the Communists far behind with 12% to 14% of the vote. [CTK 10.6.02] In fact, the final results turned out to be the complete opposite. The reliability of such polls is highlighted by the fact that the leading Western polling agency, Gallup, refuses to poll in Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Europe citing unreliable data.

Voting: The rules governing the conduct of the Czech elections have not changed significantly since the first republic – many practices were re-installed after the collapse of Communism in 1989. A similar system was adopted in Slovakia after it became an independent state in 1993. For example, voting takes place over two days, something which might have made sense in the pre-motorized age but seems unnecessary in the twenty first century, particularly in a small country like the Czech Republic. It means that ballot boxes can (theoretically) be tampered with overnight and that the media can exert influence in the longer voting period.

Voting itself is cumbersome as each party/coalition list has its own voting paper. There were 13 such competitors in 1998 but in 2002 up to 29 groups contested the election meaning that voters received 29 voting papers in the post. A voter takes the papers (or simply the one he wants to use) to the polling station, completes it in the polling booth, puts it into an envelope and then into the ballot box. The envelopes are not sent through the post and are only available in the polling stations. There is also the unsatisfactory practice whereby anyone can vote away from his/her local polling station by obtaining a certificate from their local mayoral office. In 1998 BHHRG observers noted widespread use of these certificates.

Changes to the election law s were made in two significant areas in time for the 2002 poll. For one thing, rules for state funding of political parties were eased making it possible for smaller parties to run and leading to the 29 participants mentioned above. Whereas parties were once required to deposit Kc. 200,000 ($6,060) in each region they were running candidates they now need only deposit Kc. 15,000 per region. Also, parties now only need to obtain 1.5% of the vote to receive state subsidies of Kc. 100 per voter in future elections.

The law was also changed to give Czech citizens living abroad the opportunity to vote for the first time. Their votes were added to those cast in southern Moravia – apparently, a random choice. Normally, votes from citizens living abroad are either counted in the absentee’s home constituency or in the capital city – e.g. votes from Latvians living abroad are added to ballots cast in Riga. Although only c.3000 Czechs abroad took the opportunity to vote, this number could have affected the final result, namely, reducing the Communists’ percentage of the poll and helping bolster the Coalition’s final result – southern Moravia is purportedly the heartland of KDU support.

BHHRG observed the voting in Prague and also in southern Moravia, in Znojmo, Židlochovice, Žabčice, Prostĕjov and Olomouc. The counts were observed in Prague and Vyškov. Most aspects of the voting were correctly conducted. Polling stations were properly appointed and polling booths provided proper voter secrecy although some polling stations had inadequate facilities for the disabled. However, BHHRG noted several weaknesses in the organization and conduct of the election which, in other post-Communist countries could well have led to criticism from international election monitoring bodies.

Yet, the OSCE in its preliminary report on the Czech election praised the conduct of the poll and failed to address any of the procedural shortcomings detailed below. While none of these things necessarily indicate fraud or malpractice they could, in less harmonious circumstances, make it very easy for an election to be falsified. There is a widespread view that democratic practices are unimpeachable and fully entrenched in the former Communist states of Eastern and Central Europe. However, the large demonstrations that have taken place in neighboring Hungary over allegations of fraud in the country’s April, 2002 election should act as a wake-up call that history did not necessarily come to an end in 1989.

Ballot papers and envelopes: Although ballot papers are sent to people’s homes extra papers are on hand at each polling station for those without them for some reason. There are also extra envelopes as, for example, a voter can say he has made a mistake and ask for another set of papers and a new envelope. There seemed to be little control over the number of extra ballot papers - or envelopes - in the polling stations visited. Some commission chairmen knew data, others didn’t. Some places had up 10% more ballot papers, others had none, and some had less. At Znojmo No. 10 the chairman of the commission at first claimed to have exactly the same number of envelopes as registered voters (1,008) but later modified the claim by adding that there was a “special package” containing “dozens of extra envelopes”. At Židlochovice No.1 the commission chairman didn’t know how many envelopes he had received but said that “usually” he didn’t have less than the number of registered voters. Similar laxness appeared over the disposition of unused ballot papers. Some commission chairmen said they would be destroyed others that they are kept and stored away in case there are repeat elections.

Mobile Ballot Box: In some polling stations the mobile box had been taken out at least six times during the day. The practice in most places using the facility is for one visit to be made which is a more transparent way of doing things.

Turnout: Turnout was sluggish on 14th June. BHHRG recalled more voter enthusiasm in 1998, something confirmed by a psychologist conducting a straw poll that day for Czech TV. When more people appeared to be voting it soon became apparent that up to three polling stations were located in the same building. The final results indicated a turn out of 59%, a drop in participation of 16% since 1998. Apart from the April 2002 elections in Hungary when there was a 73% turnout in the second round of voting, this fall in participation is in line with recent cross European voting patterns. From Poland to France and the United Kingdom enthusiasm for democratic participation has fallen considerably in the last few years.

None of the polling stations visited kept a running tally of the turnout during the two days of voting. At Znojmo No. 10 the commission chairman claimed that 20% of people had voted an hour after the polls had opened. This would have amounted to 200 people something that did not seem credible as few people arrived to vote during BHHRG’s half hour visit. As BHHRG’s observers in southern and eastern Moravia were forbidden to look at the voters’ registers it was impossible to check these claims. It was also the case that interviews with polling officials were nearly always conducted outside the voting room making it impossible to watch the voting process itself.

Composition of Commissions: The law requires electoral commissions to consist of mixed party membership. Any shortfall means that the local administration can appoint members to make up the numbers. Commission chairmen seemed uncertain of the party membership arrangements when asked. In 3 polling stations in Prague BHHRG was refused information about the composition of the commission having been told that such information was “secret”. In only two polling stations were the observers shown the official list detailing party representation. Membership of committees should have reflected the number of registered voters. However, in Prague Castle (for example) there were 12 commission members which in no way reflected the numbers of voters registered there.

The distribution of seats on local election commissions also exaggerates the importance of micro-parties. Repeatedly, the observers found representatives of parties with negligible support constituting the great majority of EC membership. Since several of these representatives admitted that they were NOT members of the micro-party in question but only nominated by it, it raised the potential for another larger party or interest group to obtain supplementary seats on the EC by putting forward its own supporters under the colours of various micro parties. A more appropriate way to constitute electoral commissions would be to base membership of previous electoral performance or registered local membership. Non-party members should be discouraged as they present the possibility for other parties to exercise indirect influence over the electoral proceedings by nominating “straw men”.

Voting with certificates: BHHRG observers in Moravia found few certificates had been used (2, 4, etc. however there were 44 in Olomouc No.2) This was an improvement on the situation in 1998. But, the Group’s observers in Prague found the practice more widespread. Often 40 to 50 people had voted away from home which might be explicable in a capital city with a floating population but many were voting in another Prague polling station. 70 (mostly Prague citizens) had applied to vote at Prague castle because, observers were told, “it is a prestigious place”.

The Count: Prague 5 and Vyškov: In Vyškov members of the electoral commission acted quickly to count unused envelopes and names ticked off on the register. But the speediness meant they ignored key rules. Remaining envelopes and ballots had not been invalidated or put away before the count proper started. Both the contents of the mobile box and those of the static box in the hall were mingled together and counted as one unit. Even though there were only 7 mobile votes it would be correct practice to count them separately in case they produced an anomalous result (e.g. all for one candidate). The count certainly seemed to be conducted honestly, but by bending the rules the EC set a dangerous precedent: at another time or place such laxness could be a cover for cheating.

At Prague 5 No. 295 the counting process seemed to be chaotic – each member of the commission was opening envelopes at the same time; opened envelopes and ballot papers were muddled together and all members of the commission threw away anything without any counter checking by any other member. At no stage of the proceedings did any member check another’s figures, or accuracy in allocating ballot papers to parties, or numbers of invalid votes. While the observers did not detect any intention to falsify results, the method was undoubtedly sloppy and the vote could easily have been confused/distorted if a member of the commission had mistakenly or dishonestly allocated a ballot paper to the wrong party, or a voter had mistakenly or dishonestly put more than one ballot paper in an envelope and this had, as it easily could have, gone unnoticed. The narrow margin of victory (ODS, 103, Coalition 102) in this polling station illustrates the point. The main aim of the commission seemed to be to fill in the computer forms, and as long as the final numbers tallied, it was not obvious that there was a high regard for voters’ intentions.

Recommendations: Although the 2002 elections in the Czech Republic were generally satisfactory there is still too much procedural sloppiness for comfort.

· In future elections, electoral commissions should be encouraged to keep exact figures relating to ballot papers, envelopes and turnout. Counts should be conducted with more attention to detail.

· Much of the electoral legislation should be re-thought. As pointed out, there is no need for 2 days to be allocated for voting. The perils of this system are well illustrated by an item that appeared on television news on the night of 14th June showing a raid at the offices of Vladimir Železný (director of TV Nova). As Mr. Železný is a high-profile figure in the Czech Republic who has been under attack for his perceived closeness to the ODS, people who had to yet to vote on the 15th could have been influenced by what turned out to be an obviously unpleasant incident.

· The system of ballot papers and envelopes should be scrapped.

· This has become even more necessary as recent legislation has made it possible for more parties to contest an election, inevitably leading to even more paper/envelopes for election officials to handle.

· The system of voting away from home with certificates should be re-examined. Although BHHRG found this practice less widespread than in 1998, it was unacceptably high in certain polling stations in Prague – even where ‘home’ was in the same city! After all, it would not be impossible for dishonest officials to hand out certificates enabling people to (fraudulently) vote on multiple occasions.

· Conventional rules governing the separation of powers were seriously flouted by the appointment of Stanislav Gross, Minister of the Interior, as Chairman of the Central Election Commission.

Conclusion

While the Social Democrats (ČSSD) gained the largest number of votes (30%), they had lost support (2%) and their number of seats in parliament since 1998. The ODS was down 4% and the Christian Democrats 2%. Only the Communists (KSČM) gained support – up 7% on their 1998 result.

Why did the Communists do so well? BHHRG observed the election in part in areas where the KSČM topped the poll – southern and eastern Moravia. Questioning voters about their concerns outside polling stations in these regions it emerged that many people feared the implications of overturning the Beneš Decrees e.g. restitution of land and property to former owners. The KSČM also gained seats in northern Bohemia (e.g. Ustí nad Labem, close to the German border). There was also widespread scepticism about the effects of EU membership not unconnected with fears about rising unemployment and low levels of pay. It seems that the ODS which also opposes the repeal of the Beneš legislation and promises a tougher negotiating stand with the EU did not benefit from these issues.

Václav Klaus said that the Communist “victory” was a disaster while the ubiquitous commentator on Czech affairs, Jiří Pehe offered his more dialectic analysis: that the KSČM’s success was due to its remoulded (and real) image – as closet rightists and nationalists.5 However, the impact of the party on the conduct of Czech political life may only be marginal. Although a panel of experts (journalists and analysts) went through the motions of discussing the composition of a future government on Czech TV on the night of 15th June, it was purely window-dressing. For one thing, President Havel has always said he would never conduct negotiations on coalition building with the KSČM and, in opposition, there will be strong pressure on the ODS not to collaborate or vote with “Communists” even when the two parties agree. In other words, the Communists have been handed down a bone or two – Vojtech Filip has been elected a deputy speaker in the Chamber of Deputies while the chairmanship of elections in parliament has also gone to a KSČM deputy – but otherwise they will be left hanging in the wind.

This plague on the Communist house in the Czech Republic is bizarre as former Communist parties are in power all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union where they are respected by Western governments and commentators – even Pehe who has said: “Social democrat parties tend to be more competent. Many are former communist parties with a lot of political professionals in their ranks who know how to implement things”.6 Perhaps attitudes to the KSČM might have been different if the party had only changed its name. Most other former Communist parties in Eastern/Central Europe e.g. in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Albania became Socialists or Social Democrats after 1989. This simple act warded off any suspicion or fears that former Communists were still at large, even though they were alive and well only ‘re-branded’. For example, Poland is governed by former Communists, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) Hungary’s former Communists won parliamentary elections in April 2002 while the Albanian parliament has recently appointed Alfred Moisiu, a former deputy minister of defence under Enver Hoxha, as president.

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