Nations in Transit 2012 - Czech Republic
|Publication Date||6 June 2012|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2012 - Czech Republic, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd5dd30c.html [accessed 3 March 2015]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Population: 10.5 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$22,910
Source: The data above were drawn from the World Bank's World Development Indicators 2010.
* Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance, to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.
|Regime Classification:||Consolidated Democracy|
|National Democratic Governance:||2.75|
|Local Democratic Governance:||1.75|
|Judicial Framework and Independence:||2.00|
NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.
If 2010 was a year of excitement and cautious optimism after parliamentary elections gave the center-right coalition a mandate to implement long-delayed reforms and to fight corruption, then 2011 was a year of massive disappointment. A government that pledged to clean up politics itself succumbed to repeated scandals and infighting, alienating a wide swath of the population and overshadowing some real reforms.
National Democratic Governance. While the coalition passed long-needed reforms to the health care, pension, welfare, and tax systems – aimed partly at reducing the budget deficit – a vast range of scandals and internal bickering robbed the government of much of its initial popularity. That left many people disillusioned and convinced of the entrenchment of political patronage networks. Any possible increase in the national democratic governance rating because of the reforms is thus negated by further evidence of political corruption and cronyism, leaving the figure at 2.75.
Electoral Process. No elections took place in 2010. The scandals that rocked Public Affairs (VV) again called into question the viability of new parties on the Czech political scene, and declining membership numbers at some of the big parties created greater pessimism about their ability to attract young, motivated individuals. With political parties facing a poor reputation among the general public and no progress made on political inclusion of the substantial Roma minority, the rating for electoral process remains at 1.25.
Civil Society. Longer-term inaction in certain areas of public life and the disillusionment triggered by the current government's scandals have led to greater civic activism, with a series of new civic initiatives populated by those tired of corruption and the arrogance of power. That optimism, however, has to be tempered with the reality that far-right groups also increased their activity and even managed to attract many local citizens to the troubling anti-crime, anti-Roma demonstrations that spread through northern Bohemia in the summer and fall. The civil society rating therefore remains at 1.75.
Independent Media. Czech media are independent and diverse, with one of the strongest public broadcasting systems in the wider region. Despite some worries, the election of the new head of public television took place without apparent political interference. The press is less restricted and increasingly active in uncovering official wrongdoing after the passage of an amendment to a controversial law banning the publication of information gained from police wiretaps. The rating for independent media remains at 2.50.
Local Democratic Governance. While more control systems are needed to rid the local administration of clientelism and improve efficiency, local governments have continued to prove their worth and have found relative popularity among citizens. While local power brokers still have too much power, local politicians continue to push their interests on the national level. The Czech Republic's rating for local democratic governance rating remains at 1.75.
Judicial Framework and Independence. At last the weakest link in the judicial system, the state attorney's office, seemed dedicated to pursuing even politically sensitive cases and improving its tainted reputation. The justice ministry also readied new changes to preserve the system's long-term independence. For now, the country's judicial framework and independence rating remains at 2.00.
Corruption. Accusations of corruption and financial malfeasance plagued the government in 2011, prompting the resignation of several government ministers. Notwithstanding these distractions, the administration successfully pushed through crucial anti-corruption legislation, drafted with input from the non-profit sector. Additional anticorruption measures were under discussion at the end of 2011, and are expected to pass in early 2012. Together with the efforts of civil society and the media, the fight against corruption finally seems to be making progress, but it is still too early to change the country's corruption rating from 3.25.
Outlook for 2012. After wasting much of its first year in office, the ruling coalition seemed by the end of 2011 to finally have mustered enough unity to push through crucial reforms and take the fight against corruption seriously. Changes at Prague City Hall, the new willingness of the state attorney's office to tackle politically sensitive cases, and further changes planned for early 2012 are all cause for optimism. The question remains, however, whether such progress will be enough to counter opposition to painful reforms and bring the coalition parties success in regional and Senate elections, especially with the European Commission forecasting growth at a mere 0.7 percent. Large trade union protests against the reforms already took place in 2011, including the stoppage of all trains in the country for 24 hours.
National Democratic Governance:
The institutions of governance in the Czech Republic are stable and democratic. No single party dominates the political scene, and regular rotations of power occur at national and local levels. Political parties generally agree on the nature and direction of democratic change, with one major exception – the largely unreformed Communist Party (KSČM), which has not served in a post-1989 national government and continues to attract those nostalgic for the old regime as well as those left behind during the economic transition. The KSČM holds 26 of the 200 seats in the powerful lower house of Parliament, but the refusal of other political parties to include the communists in ruling coalitions has greatly complicated the process of forming stable governments among the remaining, often conflicting parties.
That was supposed to finally change, as the coalition that emerged from the May 2010 parliamentary elections – the Civic Democrats (ODS), TOP 09, and Public Affairs (VV) – gained 118 seats out of 200, the most ever in the history of the Czech Republic and a far cry from previous governments that were often too weak to institute any significant reforms. Riding Petr Nečas of ODS took over as prime minister during a time of rising optimism that the government would, as it had promised, implement a serious effort to fight corruption.
Unfortunately, the government's reform efforts soon became distracted by a series of controversies that ended up touching each of the ruling parties. In total, six ministers had resigned by the end of 2011, most of them over accusations of corruption, or, at a minimum, dubious financial dealings in their past. Perhaps the greatest disappointment met those who had believed that VV, led by a group of charismatic newcomers, would deliver on its promises to install a new way of doing things, bereft of clientelism and waste. Instead the party experienced a wave of scandals, each one seemingly more outrageous than the previous. In April 2011, Vít Bárta, the transport minister and de facto leader of VV, resigned after the daily Mlada fronta DNES published documents that strongly suggested that Bárta had hatched a cynical plan years earlier to gain political power so his company would gain access to lucrative state contracts. Around the same time, two VV parliamentary deputies accused Bárta of trying to buy their loyalty with large handouts of cash; VV subsequently expelled the two and after an investigation the police, in December, recommended to the state prosecutor that Bárta stand trial for bribery. He has explained the money as personal loans and denied wrongdoing.
Such revelations illustrate one of the dominant characteristics of Czech political life: the corrupt intersection of business and political interests at the highest reaches of power. That theme also dominated the press after the sudden resignation in the fall of Martin Roman, the head of ČEZ, the state-controlled energy colossus. At the time, the widely respected foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, referred to a "public secret" that Roman and ČEZ had financed various political parties for years, a statement that seemed to affirm suspicions over why ČEZ's interests had so often coincided with state policy. However, regardless of how believable the accusation might have been, as with many similar accusations, Schwarzenberg did not provide any proof of his charges.
Many Czechs were also disappointed after anticipating that the overall political culture would improve after the departure of some of the old party bosses that had regularly thrown mud at each other, even in crude fashion, and failed to seek any sort of compromise across the political divide. However, incidents, particularly those involving Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, splashed cold water over hopes for change. On one occasion, Kalousek, on his way to work at the ministry, slapped a demonstrator outside the parliament; another time, he allegedly vulgarly insulted a female minister at a cabinet meeting.
The general climate of bickering and allegations of corruption contributed to a sharp dropoff in the government's popularity to some of the lowest rates in the last 20 years. By November 2011, only 22 percent of those questioned in one poll said they trusted the government (down from 33 percent a year earlier); the figure for parliament decreased from 25 percent to just 17. The same poll revealed only 6 percent satisfied with the political situation (down from 12 percent a year earlier) and 75 percent dissatisfied (up from 56 percent). At the same time, people feel hopeless to compel any change. A mere nine percent said they were satisfied with civic participation in government decision-making, with 74 percent dissatisfied.
Those figures were all the more troubling since the government will need all the support it can get to withstand opposition to the tough – and, in some cases, impressive – reforms that it has been implementing to cut back the deficit and avoid the financial problems that have struck many other European countries. In November, the president signed into law a package of health care and welfare reform laws that will allow patients to choose paid, above-standard care and that will tighten the conditions for unemployment benefits, among other key changes. The lower house of parliament also passed major pension reform that introduced a second pillar into the current system, allowing people to re-direct part of their pension payments from the state to private funds (pension reform will be partially financed through an increase in VAT rates). In both cases, the governing coalition had to use its healthy majority in the lower house to override vetoes from the left-dominated Senate.
According to some commentators, the Czech parliamentary system, to the detriment of the government, affords individual deputies too much power allowing them to speak during parliamentary sessions at will, arbitrarily insert changes into bills proposed by the executive, force the presence of ministers at meetings, and push through an excessive number of their own poorly prepared laws. While the Czech branch of Transparency International (TIC) concluded in 2011 that the transparency of the state administration had considerably improved, the organization pointed out that it was still difficult or completely impossible to acquire important information on the spending of public resources or the decision-making process.
The legislative process is further complicated by the ability of parliamentary deputies to make an unrestricted number of proposed amendments during the second reading of bills. This tradition often disorients even the most attentive parliamentarians and serves to derail long-needed legislation with calculated additions that have little to nothing in common with the debated bill. In general, lobbying the executive and the parliament remains largely unrestricted, and the public continues to believe that special interests play a major role in determining the political agenda.
The position of the president is chiefly ceremonial yet retains some important powers, such as forming a government. He or she is currently elected by parliament, but in December, in a rare show of agreement between the left and right, parliamentary deputies voted overwhelmingly to change the system to direct elections. If the Senate agrees, which is expected, citizens would gain this right in time for the 2013 elections. President Václav Klaus, in office since 2003, has sought out candidates closely tied to his political philosophy when appointing new governors to the central bank and new justices to the Constitutional Court. Some analysts believe that the Constitution creates an overlap of executive power between the government and the president, which has led to various interpretations of the powers of the president and the government, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Despite government criticism of his activities, President Klaus has espoused his personal views at various international forums and during official visits, clashing with the official government line on issues such as global warming, the introduction of the euro, and the Lisbon Treaty.
Political organizations in the Czech Republic have no problems in registering or campaigning. Although shaky coalition governments have been the norm in recent years, the system itself is solidly multiparty, with a strong opposition and diversity at all levels of government. Despite the unprecedented, large governing majority, leading politicians continue to speak of changes to electoral legislation that would foster stronger, more stable governments and eliminate the past need to rely on rebels and outcasts from other parties to pass legislation. No changes, however, took place in 2011.
The Czech Republic uses a parliamentary system with two houses. Real political power resides in the Chamber of Deputies, the 200-seat lower house, with deputies elected by proportional vote on party ballots. The 81-seat Senate is elected on the basis of single-mandate districts. The Senate can return approved bills to the lower house, but the Chamber of Deputies can override the Senate by a simple majority.
The parliamentary elections of May 2010 served as a partial rejection of the current political elite in favor of new parties. Together, the country's two biggest parties, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and ODS, lost 1.5 million votes from the last elections in 2006, even though they came out on top (ČSSD with 22.1 percent and ODS with 20.2 percent). Two parties, TOP 09 and VV, picked up most of those votes, vaulting into double digits in their first attempt to get into parliament (16.7 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively). The Communists, at 11.3 percent, were the only other party to pass the 5 percent threshold, leaving the Greens and the Christian Democrats (the Christian and Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People's Party/KDU-ČSL), a long-time fixture on the political scene, out in the cold. Many voters even took the unusual step of using preferential votes for individual candidates on their parties' lists, helping these candidates leapfrog past some political veterans that had placed high on their parties' candidate lists even though they had been linked to scandals. In the end, 114 out of the 200 seats in the lower chamber went to newcomers. And the traditionally male-dominated political scene saw the election of 44 female parliamentarians, a record number.
Political party membership, however, remains very low and appears to be dropping even further. The KSČM is the largest party (around 60,000 members), followed by the KDU-ČSL (35,000), the ODS (30,505), the ČSSD (around 22,000), TOP 09 (5,000), and the SZ (2,000). According to the weekly Respekt, party members have also been fleeing in large numbers, with ODS losing 3,000 members over the past year and hundreds leaving ČSSD. The decline in numbers has also been a long-term trend affecting KSČM and KDU-ČSL, whose ranks have tended to be filled with members of the older generation. And despite TOP 09's resounding success in the 2010 elections, the number of members has not increased (although the party says it is stressing quality over quantity). Respekt also quoted research conducted several years ago by Masaryk University that found a relatively large number of people that wanted to express themselves to the political situation but only around 5 percent that would consider joining a political party. A recent poll by the Center for Public Opinion explained part of the reason: Respondents found political parties the most corrupt of all public institutions with 81 percent characterizing them as either above-average or highly corrupt. Such attitudes about the parties and citizens' willingness to join them have been consistent for many years.
A low membership base has clear repercussions for the political elite. With relatively few members to choose from, parties often recycle the same personalities and reward loyalty rather than expertise. That said, the election results seemed to indicate a widespread desire for new blood and the parties managed to present some new faces to voters in time for the local elections in the fall of 2010, an optimistic development for the future – as was the success of the Mayors and Independents (STAN) movement that ran on the TOP 09 ticket. (With local interests in mind, STAN has pushed successfully to restrict gambling, better redistribute taxes between the large cities and smaller municipalities, and to increase transparency in public tenders.) Desperation among voters hungry for fresh faces on the political scene also seemed behind the large amount of attention devoted to Andrej Babiš, one of the richest Czech businessmen, who founded the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement in the fall of 2011. Despite Babiš's own involvement in the opaque business/political environment of the 1990s, he led the groundwork for an anticorruption platform and vowed to compete in the next elections.
The low number of party members has also contributed to a phenomenon known as "whale hunting" whereby wealthy businesspeople, usually in the regions, allegedly "buy" new party members who then help them gain greater influence in parties' regional or local structures before party congresses. One party frequently accused of ties to local "godfathers," the ODS, has attempted to counter such practices through concrete steps, including electronically monitoring and investigating sudden surges in the membership of party cells.. However, for many, Prime Minister Petr Nečas's choice of Martin Kuba as the new minister of industry in the fall shattered any illusions that regional heavyweights wouldn't still be pulling the strings. In a transparent attempt to sheer up support in his own party, Nečas chose a man with a dubious reputation, precisely because of Kuba's close relationship with one of these famed regional cronies.
Party financing also continues to operate with little regulation. In October 2010, for example, one ČSSD parliamentary deputy admitted in an interview that he had donated part of his compensation as a member of the advisory board of a partially state-owned company to his party – not as an official gift, but hidden through various intermediaries. The ministry of interior has developed a proposal to create a special office to oversee party financing and hand out fines; require parties to create special, publicly accessible accounts to keep track of their campaign spending; and prevent parties from hanging anonymous billboards, a popular practice used to blacken opponents. Prime Minister Nečas has pledged to pass such a law quickly, but by year's end, that had not happened.
The country's largest minority, the Roma, is effectively shut out of national politics. Although the number of Roma is estimated at between 200,000 and 250,000, there are currently no Roma parliamentarians. Mainstream parties believe that placing Roma candidates on their lists may do them more harm than good among average voters, while prospective Roma are not politically organized to compete effectively for votes. Roma are, however, sometimes active at the local level. Romani representatives agreed at a national conference in October to form a united organization to represent Roma interests in talks with government officials, a possible first step toward creating a Roma political party.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have fully recovered from several scandals that tarnished their early post-Communist existence. Most Czechs now see NGOs as influential organizations, helpful in solving social problems, and essential to a well-functioning democracy. Consequently, there has been an increase in donations to nonprofits from individuals and, until the economic crisis hit, from the business sector. Environmental and humanitarian organizations, in particular, have earned widespread respect among the Czech public.
The nonprofit sector's relationship with the political elite varies. The state is the largest funder of NGOs, providing extensive financial support through grants and coordinating nonprofit activities through the Council for NGOs. Historically, the NGO community has had little confidence in the council. Lately, however, NGOs have begun using the council to promote their views, including the need to create a standardized system for state grants to NGOs, instead of the confusing current state of affairs where each ministry has its own methods of providing funds. NGO representatives also sit on advisory bodies of various ministries. On the other hand, some politicians – most prominently President Klaus – believe NGOs should not attempt to influence public policy or interfere unnecessarily in government work. The political elite is wary of more "aggressive" forms of action, such as demonstrations and petition drives, and is quick to label the initiators as politically motivated. Many officials prefer NGOs to serve strictly as service providers, filling in where the state does not or cannot. The non-profit community lost one of its bigger backers in December 2011 with the death of former President Václav Havel, who championed the role of civil society throughout his political career and right up until he passed away.
NGO experts generally view the legal framework as adequate in terms of easy registration and independent operation, though the inability to define precisely the term nonprofit organization and other gaps in Czech legislation have created problems related to NGO taxation and their activities. In 2010, amendments were made to the Law on Public Benefit Corporations and to the Law on Foundations and Endowment Funds in an attempt to clarify some of these issues. In 2011, a debate broke out in the NGO sector about prepared changes in the new civil code that would enshrine into law the status of public benefit organizations, with some well-known NGOs arguing that the changes would increase the lack of transparency in the sector and discriminate against smaller organizations. In the end a compromise was reached.
Millions of euros in EU structural funds have replaced to some extent resources once donated by numerous foreign foundations and governments before the country joined the EU. An increasing number of non-profits have launched campaigns to experiment with social entrepreneurship ventures and to raise funds from individual supporters (Czech law provides extremely low tax incentives for donations of this kind). According to the USAID NGO Sustainability Index 2010, the majority of NGOs, however, still found themselves in poor financial shape, which turned even more troublesome with the impact of the financial crisis hitting home on their sponsors (whether the state or others). The same report from a year earlier had noted other worrying trends: the central government has been allocating more funds for regional offices and town halls to distribute; and the local authorities have been implementing more of their own projects or passing on the money to organizations that they have launched, rather than to independent NGOs.
Toward the end of 2011, a number of NGOs launched a campaign to preserve the flow of funds from taxes on gambling to the non-profit sector. Their initiative was meant to counter a proposal in the Senate to divide up such funds among only municipalities and sports organizations, leaving the non-profit sector to fend for itself without what the campaign quoted as 2 billion crowns ($103 million) – a move that the NGOs said would threaten the delivery of services and activities that the state did not know how to provide. Critics, however, have said that lottery companies' distribution of such funds has been non-transparent and encouraged corruption. In the end, the Senate approved a division of the money between the state and municipalities, with the finance minister pledging to release separate funds to help NGOs.
Grassroots initiatives have become more common in the Czech Republic and could count some achievements in 2011. One of the most prominent examples was the successful campaign to pressure Minister of Education Josef Dobeš into removing from office one of his subordinates, Ladislav Bátora. Bátora, who had once campaigned for the xenophobic National Party, had continued to actively participate in far-right-oriented events and pronounce what many considered extremist, racist opinions.
The disillusionment triggered by the current government's scandals and initially sluggish moves against corruption seems to be leading to greater civic activism. Together with the non-profit sector, academics, and artists, more businessmen are now getting involved, including a group that launched the Foundation Fund Against Corruption and started handing out grants to whistleblowers and others fighting for greater transparency. The Foundation has also started to launch its own investigations into instances of suspected corruption, and turned up evidence that the Prague Public Transportation Company had paid inflated prices for the printing of metro tickets.. Pro-transparency websites that encourage citizens to find out more information about their public representatives and send them messages have also sprouted up.
Unfortunately, far-right extremist organizations have also increased their presence in society in recent years, forming alliances with established political parties such as the far-right Workers' Party (DS). In February 2010, using abundant evidence of DS ties to neo-Nazi groups and representative of a new toughness against extremist groups, the interior ministry succeeded where others had previously failed in convincing the Supreme Administrative Court to outlaw the DS party. "This ruling needs to be understood as a preventive one, to maintain the constitutional and democratic order in the future," Judge Vojtěch Šimíček said at the time, issuing the first ban on a Czech political party since the country gained independence in 1993. Czech law permits a banned party to re-register under a new name, however, which former DS members did almost immediately.
The newly reconstituted Workers' Party of Social Justice (DSSS) played a major role in the large-scale ethnic unrest that wracked the northern part of the country in the summer and fall – the worst outbreak of tensions between the Roma and majority community in the country's history. Touched off by brutal attacks by groups of young Roma in the towns of Rumburk and Nový Bor and rising crime in some of the poor regions of northern Bohemia, anti-Roma demonstrations and marches on areas populated by Roma took place on a weekly basis. In contrast to previous incidents, mainly attended by extremists, thousands of local townspeople also participated in these protests, accusing the Roma of living off social handouts and not attempting to work. The government ordered more police troops to the region, and the situation escaped further escalation. Amid the unrest, the government in September adopted an official "Strategy for Fighting Social Exclusion," with over 100 measures aimed at improving the situation in the areas of education, employment, housing, and security. The plan, which calls for spending up to 15 billion crowns in the next four years ($773 million), will attempt to both remedy the conditions in the ghettos and prevent ghettos from forming.
Press freedom has long been secure in the Czech Republic, and no major media are state owned. The "serious" press has now matured to a point where it offers more balanced political coverage and opinions; publications may favor one side of the political spectrum, but they are generally not viewed as political propaganda favoring one party or another. However, some analysts have noted that the last few elections have prompted a relapse, with the press returning to the political polarization of the 1990s both before and after the elections.
The national print media offer a diverse selection of daily newspapers, weeklies, and magazines, but the economic crisis has placed greater pressure on many, increasing the threat that they will shy away from critical coverage of major advertisers (an allegation already heard over the years). Criticism has also been voiced that the financial crisis has accelerated the tabloidization of the serious press, and, in fact, in 2011, for the first time in the Czech market, the combined circulation of tabloid daily newspapers surpassed that of the news-oriented dailies, continuing a long-term trend. The economic downturn has also stunted the regional newspaper market as sharp dropoffs in advertising income helped kill off several new ventures over the past few years, leaving VLP – a German-controlled chain, with over 70 publications under its wing – in its traditional dominant position.
While some of the main dailies may have added tabloid-like elements, they have done a better job as of late in aggressively investigating allegations of improper and illegal behavior among politicians, no matter their party affiliation, and revelations by the press led directly to the resignation of a number of ministers in 2011. Such investigative efforts should also be helped by an amendment to a controversial 2009 law banning the publication of information gained from police wiretaps – a major source of incriminating evidence against politicians in recent years. The law, which took effect in April 2009, had prompted a rare show of unity among media outlets and sharp criticism from international journalism rights groups. The amendment – approved by the lower house of parliament and the Senate in May and June 2011, respectively – allows the publication of police wiretaps in the case of public interest, with a court serving as the final arbiter of whether a journalist has the right to publish the information or not. Laws criminalizing defamation remain on the books, yet prosecutions are rare and are not widely considered a threat to media independence.
With improved news and current affairs coverage over the past few years, the public television and radio stations, Czech TV (ČT) and Czech Radio, have also contributed to the country's high rankings in press freedom indexes (14th in the world, for example, on the Reporters Without Borders list). In the past, ČT's financial difficulties had made it particularly vulnerable to political and business interests, while some observers charged that fears over "rocking the boat" have led in the past to the cancellation of some hard-hitting discussion shows and less investigative journalism. However, the overall financial situation has improved greatly, and no high profile clashes between politicians and ČT have taken place in recent years. The station can also still boast of some unfettered public affairs programs that would make jealous virtually any other public broadcaster in the post-communist region. Such programs do not have much competition over at the private media, where investigative and discussion programs have largely disappeared from television screens, ostensibly because of financial reasons.
Yet ČT's position is always tenuous. The Chamber of Deputies appoints Czech TV's supervisory board (as well as that of Czech Radio), and politically compromised members are thought to sit on both boards even though these institutions are meant to be apolitical. The governing coalition has pledged to pass a new television law that would considerably reduce the potential influence of politicians on public TV, especially on the news, which would include changing the system for electing the members of the TV board. Although that did not happen in 2011, the highly anticipated election of a new director at Czech TV came off without accusations that political influence had determined the overall winner, Petr Dvořák. Many questioned, however, whether Dvorak – the one-time director of TV Nova, famous for its superficial, tabloid news programming – could be the one to boost the ratings and quality of the news at Czech TV, as he promised. While reports surfaced in December of the station's reporters complaining that some politically sensitive stories had been edited or killed outright, the charges may simply have been the result of the introduction of new standards. In his defense, Dvorak suggested that the stories had not been of a high enough quality.
It will also be important to see how ČT deals with the loss of a sufficient chunk of advertising revenue. Effective January 1, 2012, advertising was banned on two of CTV's channels – the main channel and 24-hour news channel. The advertising limit for the two other CTV stations – the culture/arts channel and the sports channel – will remain at 0.5 percent of daily broadcasting time. In return, the same amendment requires the country's commercial stations to contribute 2 percent of their advertising income to the State Fund for the Support and Development of Cinematography. The Association of Czech Advertising Agencies complained about the changes, saying that the amendment would only strengthen the marketing position of the two dominant commercial stations and lead to higher advertising costs and thus higher product costs for consumers. Yet parliamentary deputies had apparently been convinced by the arguments of commercial stations that public television's mission would be distorted through the continued quest for advertising dollars. For some, this was only the latest example of how the private stations' powerful lobbying has had an undue influence on parliamentary deputies, resulting in laws favoring commercial stations over public broadcasters. That was especially true in the run-up to digital broadcasting during the mid-2000s, as the big private stations succeeded in first lobbying to postpone the digital shiftover and then being awarded more stations of their own. So far, hopes that digital broadcasting would help to diversity the playing field have not been fulfilled, as financial pressures have killed off some stations and derailed the plans for new ones.
Toward the end of the year, Czech TV received criticism from some human rights activists for using the term "unadaptables" in its news programs when describing people (often Roma) leaving in excluded areas of the country. The legal department of Czech TV disputed the notion that use of the term contributed to stigmatizing the Romani people as a whole, with the acting director of the department, saying "Gypsies work at Czech Television. One of them is even a news anchor." This was not the first instance when Czech TV used derogatory language in reference to the Roma.
Local Democratic Governance:
Though slow in coming, the development of local government structures and authority has become one of the Czech Republic's bright spots. Landmark legislation passed in 1997 led to the creation of 14 regions, which began functioning in 2001. The central government handed over significant powers to these regions in the fields of education, health care, and road maintenance. Additionally, 205 newly created municipalities replaced 73 district offices, which ceased all activities by the end of 2002.
Self-governed regions and municipalities own property and manage separate budgets. Voters directly elect regional assemblies, which then choose regional councils and governors. The regional councils may pass legal resolutions and levy fines. Directly elected municipal assemblies appoint municipal councils and mayors. Municipalities wield considerable power over areas such as welfare, building permits, forest and waste management, and motor vehicle registration.
The regions have made considerable progress in tackling problems neglected by the central government (such as education). Overall, the success in regional management and greater autonomy has made a strong case for allowing regional governments to manage a larger share of the tax money they help to collect. As a November 2011 poll by the Center for Public Opinion showed, Czech citizens trust their local (56 percent) and regional representatives (38 percent) far more than the lower house of Parliament (17 percent) or the Senate (23 percent) – even though these figures have dropped over the past few years.
For the bulk of their budgets, however, regions essentially act as middlemen for the state, sending money to predetermined recipients. Politicians in regional governments complain that they are now in charge of roads, hospitals, schools, and old-age homes, among other things, but the central government decides how much money to send to cover these budget items. The failure of funds flowing from the center to keep pace with these newly added responsibilities has proven particularly vexing for officials of smaller towns, which receive far less money per capita than big cities. Until recently the tax redistribution figure was six times more for large cities than smaller municipalities but pressure from local representatives led to changes that dropped the figure to 4.5 times. Such disgruntlement also culminated in 2011 with the regional hejtmen (governors) suing the central government for not fulfilling its promises to finance regional transportation, including the railroads.
Even with these obstacles, the influence of local officials has increased dramatically from the early years of the country's independence, in both good and bad ways. During the past election, a Mayors and Independents (STAN) movement ran on the TOP 09 ticket and picked up eight parliamentary seats, gaining a prime position to push local interests on the national level, including the tax redistribution cause (STAN and TOP 09 have prepared a proposal to reduce the figure even further, to only three times per capita for the big cities). On the negative side, local "bosses" still control regional party cells, which, in turn, choose candidates for parliament and the Senate, and elect party chairmen. Therefore, although the 2010 national elections did result in the removal of some compromised politicians and the weakening of the biggest political parties, some observers believe that only a similar revolution on the local level – diminishing the power of the local clans – can lead to real change.
Early indications were not good. After the 2010 local elections, the greatest rivals, ODS and ČSSD, formed grand coalitions in some of the country's largest cities – Prague, Brno, Ostrava, and Plzeň – that, in some cases, allowed unsavory politicians to stay in power. In Prague, the move led to demonstrations and a petition drive. In addition, some of those aspiring for change either were not able to achieve leadership positions or lasted for only a short period of time in high office. However, the situation dramatically changed in late 2011. Unexpectedly and quickly, the ODS and ČSSD coalition in Prague collapsed, replaced by an ODS-TOP 09 partnership that managed to sideline key politicians with dubious pasts and suspicious connections to influential businessmen. A number of highly placed officials that had been compromised in one way or another soon lost their jobs. The mayor Bohuslav Svoboda kept his post throughout the change, encouraging many that believed he had made significant inroads in cleaning up City Hall since taking office. Some commentators speculated that the changes in Prague could have reverberations in the regions, showing as they did that the status quo that favored entrenched business interests could change virtually overnight. Time will tell, however, whether TOP09, with its own links to business interests, was more interested in inserting own people in the city administration than real reform and increased efficiency.
Greater transparency and corruption-fighting instruments at the national level have not kept up with the transfer of responsibilities and finances to local governments, and endemic cronyism remains a critical problem. Experts believe that most corruption now takes place at the local level, since the economy has been privatized and wrongdoing is more visible on the national stage. The lack of oversight on such dealings is a major part of the problem, as the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ) currently has no legal authority to examine the financial management of regional governments or municipalities. That could change soon, however, as the government has drafted legislation extending the NKÚ's authority to also monitor regional and local governments, a big step forward if approved by parliament.
Judicial Framework and Independence:
The Czech Republic's four-tiered judicial system consists of district courts (86), regional courts (8), high courts (2), and the Supreme Court. The Czech Constitutional Court is a well-respected institution that may be addressed directly by citizens who believe their fundamental rights have been violated. Although the Czech judiciary is constitutionally independent, the minister of justice appoints and dismisses the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the courts., The Czech Republic is the only European country where the executive has such a large influence over the personnel composition of the state attorney's office: the government names the highest state attorney, on the recommendation of the minister of justice, and the minister of justice, on the recommendation of the highest state attorney, appoints state attorneys. Adding to the dependence of the state attorneys on the executive, the minister of justice can also initiate disciplinary proceedings against them.
Historically, the most problematic part of the judicial system has been the state attorney's office, but the situation appeared to improve over the course of 2011. In the past, the state attorney's office had appeared to be highly susceptible to political influence, highlighted most dramatically in 2007. At that time, a deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, the chief state attorney, and a former minister of justice attempted to get a corruption case against Deputy Prime Minister Jiří Čunek shelved for fear that an indictment could shatter the then-ruling coalition. That case was only one of many corruption cases that led Transparency International's Czech branch – in a groundbreaking 2011 study of the country's "National Integrity System" – to evaluate the state attorney's office as the weakest pillar among the country's institutions entrusted with limiting corruption. The report, which came out in December , called the office a "black hole that absorbed information about serious cases of corruption but itself didn't emit any," and easily succumbs to political influence while even slowing down the investigation of some cases.
However, a new head of the state attorney's office, Pavel Zeman, took office at the beginning of 2011 and appeared intent on pursuing a number of politically sensitive corruption cases that his predecessor, Renáta Vesecká, had seemed reluctant to investigate. Zeman also re-installed independent-minded attorneys that Vesecká had removed. Yet 2011 showed that cleaning up the system from alleged politicization won't be easy: Zeman faced a stiff challenge from some parts of the political spectrum when he removed the lead prosecutor from office, though that very prosecutor had received repeated criticism for not acting in politically sensitive cases.
More changes are evidently on the way. The ruling coalition agreed in November on radical changes to the law on the state attorney's office, which would dissolve the high state attorney's office in Prague and Olomouc and replace them with a special team of prosecutors that will deal with the biggest corruption and criminal cases. Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil said the move would provide greater independence for the prosecutors, while providing them with clearly defined powers and protection from possible political interference. The ministry hopes to get the changes into law in the first half of 2012 so that they could take effect in 2013.
The country's president names the two vice presidents of the Supreme Court and the heads of all other courts, except the lowest district courts, along with the chief of the Supreme Court and Supreme Administrative Court. The president can submit direct complaints against particular high court judges, including the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the Supreme Court and Supreme Administrative Court. Relations between President Klaus and the Constitutional Court have been frosty over the deals, highlighted by the court's final 2009 ruling on the constitutionality of the Lisbon Treaty, which had challenged. The court had also ruled against Klaus when he tried in 2006 to dismiss the chairwoman of the Supreme Court.
The Czech Republic is the only EU country without functioning civil service legislation. The Law on the Civil Service was approved in 2002, in the lead up to the country's entry into the EU, but has never taken effect; its starting date has been repeatedly delayed owing to political disputes. The interior ministry is reportedly now working on a completely new civil service law in connection with its anti-corruption strategy.
On the positive side, in November 2011, the lower house passed a sweeping, new civil code to replace a version that dated back to 1964 and had been amended 40 times since 1989. When the code takes effect in 2014, it will make fundamental changes in such areas as family and ownership law. But gay rights' activists complained that the new code still did not allow same-sex partners to apply for child adoption or joint foster care, or permit registered, same-sex couples to jointly hold property.
Implementation is also lagging on the 2001 amendment to the labor code mandating equal treatment for all employees, as women remain underrepresented in senior positions and are paid less than men for similar jobs. Overall, while more women now hold seats in the Parliament than ever before, few attain other positions of political power. The share of seats in Parliament after the June elections rose from 16 to 22 percent, but the government itself ended up with zero female ministers (in 2011 Karolina Peake from VV became deputy prime minister for the fight against corruption).
Discrimination against the Roma in employment and housing also presents a serious problem. A 2006 government report estimated that 80,000 Roma – roughly a third of the country's Roma population – live in ghettos, with between 95 and 100 percent unemployment. In a landmark decision in November 2007, the ECHR ruled that segregating Roma students into special schools is a form of unlawful discrimination in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention (prohibiting discrimination), taken together with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (securing the right to education). Yet, in a November 2010 complaint filed at the Council of Europe, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the European Roma Rights Centre, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) argued that the Czech Republic "has taken no concrete steps to desegregate schools", producing an under-funded and vague action plan that has not led to improvement. The organizations asserted that Roma children are still 12 times more likely than non-Roma to be enrolled in special schools for children with mental disabilities (and in some parts of the country the figure is 27 times). Given the general level of discrimination, it came as little surprise that only 13,150 Czech citizens identified themselves as Roma in the 2011 census.
Parliamentary deputies approved an amendment in 2011 that will allow municipalities to ban residence on their territory of people that in the past had committed a misdemeanor and didn't pay a required fine. Critics said the move restricted freedom of movement and was directed against socially excluded people. Some villages have also taken to passing ordinances to restrict the use of public spaces, ostensibly to keep public order but likely directed at preventing homeless people and Roma to spend time on the streets.
While most in the Czech Republic can live their daily lives without engaging in corrupt behavior, complaints do arise over the need to bribe or "give gifts" to expedite services from the public administration. Although few people encounter corruption directly, the perception of illegal activity, especially concerning the political elite, is widespread. Many have viewed existing anticorruption measures as insufficient to dismantle the intricate web of connections between political and business elites.
In December 2011 the Czech branch of Transparency International (TIC) released the country's first National Integrity System (NIS) study, which analyzed the extent to which the country's institutions were prepared or unprepared to face corruption. The key results indicated that the weakest pillars in the system are the state attorney's office and the state administration, followed by the police; in general, excessive politicization had led to unwillingness across the system to actively move against corruption cases with a political subtext. The best evaluated pillars were the ombudsman's office and the Supreme Audit Office.
To improve the overall situation, TIC has recommended a list of main priorities for the authorities: increased transparency for political party financing, the acceptance of rules for the appointment of state officials and the de-politicization of the public administration; increased independent of the courts and state attorney's office; specialized state attorneys; much more effective control of European funds; and more effective monitoring of business entities controlled by the state and local governments. The annual report of the domestic secret services (BIS) also called attention to corruption in the judiciary, suggesting incidents of bribery in return for confidential information, manipulated court cases, and sweeping various crimes under the carpet. And in October two judges were accused of accepting bribes, abuse of office, and influencing certain cases.
The new government came to power in 2010 with the fight against corruption as one of its main tenets. After a sluggish start, the coalition finally started to deliver real progress in 2011, ironically against a backdrop of its own scandals that saw the resignation of a number of cabinet members. According to Oživení (Revival), an anti-corruption group, the most significant move was the lower house's passage of an amendment to the law on public tenders, which lowered the amount threshold beyond which public contracts must be opened to a bidding process (until now those levels had been among the highest in Europe). At year's end, the Senate was debating the proposal, which was also praised by the Platform for Transparent Public Contracts, a grouping of political parties, business associations, government institutions, and NGOs. While some critics were disappointed that the bill did not contain provisions that would force bidders for public contracts to disclose their ownership structure, the government pledged to address that issue separately. The Justice Ministry has already presented to parliament a bill restricting anonymous ownership of joint-stock companies in a bid for greater transparency, which is expected to be debated in early 2012.
New legislation introducing criminal liability for companies as of 2012 should be a powerful instrument for fighting economic crime and corruption. The government or individual ministries were also in the process of preparing new laws or amending existing ones – dealing with political party financing, freedom of information, lobbying, the state attorney's office, civil service, and the press (to counter the misuse of local periodicals by political parties).
Lack of transparency in major business deals involving the state remains a serious problem at both national and local levels. While the country's highest control body, the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ), has uncovered massive irregularities and overspending on various government contracts, politicians generally ignore its findings, the same fate that also often befalls rulings by the respected ombudsman's office. Current law does not allow the NKÚ to impose sanctions. Long-running court cases against the NKÚ's head, František Dohnal, over financial mismanagement at the NKÚ and his state-financed rental of a luxury flat also damaged the agency's reputation. Though he was later cleared of wronging with the flat, Dohnal was found guilty in July of abuse of office and handed a suspended sentence for repeatedly blocking attempts by parliament's budget committee to review the NKÚ's accounting. But even informed observers had difficulty concluding whether Dohnal had done anything wrong or whether this was a clear case of political pressure on an independent institution.
Journalists often do not invoke their rights under the Law on Freedom of Information, and officials still sometimes refuse to provide the requested information or ask for unreasonably high administrative fees. In a gain for greater transparency, however, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled in May that information about the salaries and bonuses of state officials should be public.
Many have long complained about the failure to prosecute any "big fish" over the years for alleged wrongdoing, even though 2011 saw the conviction of a number of local officials and politicians. Finally, at the end of the year, Czech corruption fighters got their wish: The police charged former Defense Minister Martin Bartak with attempting to elicit a bribe to smooth over a troubled deal to supply the military with Tatra trucks.
Jeremy Druker is executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online, an internet news magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. Alice Drukerova, a freelance journalist, and Jarmila Kolkova assisted in the research for the Czech Republic report.
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