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.
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.
Confounding exit polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race for the Romanian presidency, Bucharest’s mayor, Trajan Basescu, defeated incumbent prime minister, Adrian Nastase, by almost 5% in the decisive second round of voting on 12th December, 2004. Following allegations of widespread fraud in the first round of the elections held on 28th November, monitors from the British Helsinki Human Rights Group observed the 2nd round of the Presidential elections in polling stations in Constanta, Eforie, Medgidiu and Otopeni. The conduct of the poll everywhere was efficient. After a slow start, voter numbers increased, but the simplicity of the choice between two candidates and generally reliable lists of registered voters meant that the polling stations dealt quickly with voters. Only a handful of cases of people coming to the wrong polling station or without adequate documentation were noted.
Enter the Labour Party: On 13th June, Lithuania also held its first elections to select 13 MPs to the European parliament. From the established parties the Social Democrats won 2 seats, the Liberal-Centrist Union, 2, Homeland Union 2, Liberal Democrats, 1, Farmers and New Democracy, 1. Although Paksas’s Liberal Democrats might have expected to gain support after the acknowledged unpopularity of the impeachment process, the main winner was the upstart Labour Party led by Viktor Uspaskich, a former Social Liberal MP, which won 5 seats. Lithuania’s Labour Party is a classic jack-in-the-box creation which suddenly appeared in October 2003 and immediately took a lead in the opinion polls. It mirrors similar parties that have emerged, seemingly from nowhere, in several former Communist countries. For instance, the Smer (Direction) party in Slovakia and Bulgaria’s National Movement for Simeon 11 were created to drain support away from genuine opposition parties – in the case of Slovakia, from Vladmir Mečiar’s HZDS and in Bulgaria, from the Socialist Party (BSP). As Paksas continued to attract large numbers to his meet-the-people sessions the possibility presented itself that large numbers would vote Liberal Democrat in parliamentary elections scheduled for October, 2004.
BHHRG’s representative was present in Lithuania for the presidential election held on 13th June, 2004. Elections to the European parliament were held simultaneously. 5 candidates stood in the presidential poll while 12 parties contested the European election. By holding the polls on the same day Lithuania avoided the embarrassment of a spectacularly low voter turnout such as that registered in other ‘New European’ countries that day – for example, in Estonia, Poland and Slovakia. The reason for the different levels of participation was the greater interest engendered in Lithuania by the presidential election, although politicians themselves were keen to participate in the Euro poll, registering to stand as candidates in unprecedented numbers. No doubt, they were encouraged by the agreeable set of perks offered to Euro MPs by Brussels. Presidential election: The 2004 presidential campaign proper only properly took off after the Constitutional Court banned Rolandas Paksas from standing as a candidate on 25th May. Whatever the legal niceties put forward for removing him from the race, if he had he been allowed to run he would have probably won convincingly, maybe even in the first round of voting. Had the authorities resorted to manipulating either the conduct of the poll or the counting of the votes (or both) the government in Vilnius was all too aware that Mr. Paksas had become something of a lightening rod for the thousands of Lithuanians who felt abandoned by the cosy power structures that run the country.
Whereas in South Korea, the Supreme Court (silently) acknowledged the will of the people as clearly expressed in the general election and reversed the parliamentary impeachment vote, in Lithuania it is precisely the Constitutional Court which has pre-empted the judgement of the people. The Lithuanian Court chose to go beyond even what Paksas’s parliamentary enemies sought. Like it or not, the Court made itself a central player in a political crisis by taking the initiative to enact a far-reaching constitutional law not expressed in any part of the written text. Leaving aside a likely appeal to the ECHR in Strasbourg as the Court’s ruling cannot now be directly challenged in Lithuania, it may not be the final word on the matter. Various possibilities remain open to the Paksas camp for challenging the lifetime ban. First of all, a constitutional change might be pushed through by referendum. Or, the composition of the Court might alter as new judges replace the existing ones when their terms expire. Parliamentary elections due in the autumn might produce a majority which would not accept judges known to agree with the current Court’s anti-Paksas stance. As in America, nominations to the Constitutional Court could become bitterly contested.