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
The Financial Times on 17th June described Václav Havel as the “happiest Czech” after the election results came in. One month later, on 17th July 2002, he appointed a new cabinet led by new prime minister, Vladimír Špidla. There are 17 members of the government: 11 ministers are from the CSSD, 3 from the KDU-CSL and 3 from the US-DEU. Stanislav Gross continues in his post as minister of the interior. Also continuing with their previous portfolios are Culture Minister, Pavel Dostál, Defence Minister, Jaroslav Tvrdík, Pavel Rychetský (justice) and Jiří Rusnok (industry). Petra Buzková becomes minister of education. The leader of the Christian Democrats, Cyril Svoboda is the new Foreign Minister with the ministries of transport and environment also going to the KDU, while the US’s Petr Mareš becomes minister for science as well as being one of 4 deputy prime ministers.
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.
Much of the Czech media is now owned by foreign companies, mainly from Germany, Switzerland and France. In their editorial policies, most leading broadsheets (Mladá Fronta Dnes, Lidové Noviny, Hospodářské Noviny) support the US and the reform wing of the ČSSD. Only Právo on the left is (mildly) critical of the status quo. This means that the major opposition party, the ODS, has no support from any leading newspaper. The situation is similar for the Communist Party: the third largest party in the Czech Republic with the largest membership has the support of only one small, low-circulation newspaper – Hálo noviny. While this state of affairs would be unheard of in most other leading European democracies, Czech journalists see nothing peculiar about it. As for television, state TV supports the status quo whereas the Czech Republic’s most popular station, TV Nova, is seen as looking more favourably on the ODS.
Since the so-called ‘velvet revolution’ in 1989, politics in the Czech Republic has been governed – some would say overshadowed – by two competing and, ultimately, incompatible interests. On one side are formal political parties, while on the other stand proponents of a system of anti-politics which advocates something called ‘civil society’ where policy emanates, almost mysteriously, from citizens’ groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While masquerading as a form of benevolent populism, critics view these ideas as akin to the classic Gramscian notion of ‘hegemony’ whereby society is governed by powerful elites - the opposite, in fact, of people power.
A network of such elites including journalists, academics and businessmen has grown ever more powerful in the Czech Republic over the past ten years, their centre of gravity being the internationally revered Czech president, Václav Havel. Havel has long been the leading exponent of ‘civic society’, regularly criticizing politicians for their venality and corruption. The Czech president is the most visible example of the Communist-era dissident turned politician.
Over the previous 4 years foreign investment in the Czech economy grew as large firms including breweries and utilities such as gas distribution companies were sold abroad. Large hypermarkets were appearing, although they have not yet proliferated to the same level as in Poland. But, as foreign supermarket chains are offered tax breaks (similar to those in Poland) to enter the Czech market their presence can only increase. By the end of 2001 there was no major bank in the Czech Republic not controlled by a large Western banking group.
As the June 2002 election approached leading figures in the ČSSD were determined to ensure that the events of 1998 did not repeat themselves. The party was basically split between older, prototype Socialists and young modernizers of whom the Interior Minister, Stanislav Gross and Chamber of Deputies deputy chairman, Petra Buzková (both close to Havel) were the most prominent members. The leader of the ČSSD and prime minister, the mercurial Miloš Zeman, resigned as party leader in 2001. His successor, Vladimír Špidla, is a colourless but more predictable figure.
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 June 2002 elections have returned a government coalition of left and right that has something for everyone, from President Havel to the EU. But, the better-than-expected Communist vote threatens to spoil the party.
Parliamentary elections were held in the Czech Republic on 14th/15th June, 2002. Since the last poll in 1998 the country had been ruled by a minority Social Democrat (ČSSD) government tolerated by the second largest party, the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) in what became known as the ‘opposition agreement’.
This arrangement has been subject to furious criticism from certain quarters within the political elite of the Czech Republic and attempts have been made on several occasions to bring it to an end. However, defying nay-sayers, the government survived its 4 year mandate.