Nations in Transit 2013 - Czech Republic
|Publication Date||5 September 2013|
|Cite as||Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2013 - Czech Republic, 5 September 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/5229d2dd5.html [accessed 30 July 2016]|
|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$24,490
Source: The data above are drawn from The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2013.
Democracy Score: 2.14
Regime Classification: Consolidated Democracy
National Democratic Governance: 2.75
Electoral Process: 1.25
Civil Society: 1.75
Independent Media: 2.50
Local Democratic Governance: 1.75
Judicial Framework and Independence: 1.75
* 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.
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.
The enthusiasm and cautious optimism that emerged after the last parliamentary elections have completely faded away. In 2010, voters gave the center-right coalition a strong mandate to implement long-delayed reforms and to fight corruption, only to see their government succumb to repeated scandals and infighting in 2011 and 2012. As a result, the ruling coalition's poor reputation has overshadowed its notable progress in key areas and left a large section of society disillusioned with the political process.
National Democratic Governance. A stream of corruption scandals and persistent bickering within the ruling coalition and individual parties offset impressive progress in key areas such as judicial independence and the fight against corruption, leaving the government even less popular than the year before. The Czech Republic's national democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 2.75.
Electoral Process. Senate and regional elections took place without incident, confirming the country's solid reputation for smooth transfers of political power. However, with mainstream political parties losing even more of their popularity among the general public, a candidate registration fiasco in the presidential race, and no progress made on political inclusion of the substantial Roma minority, the Czech Republic's rating for electoral process remains unchanged at 1.25.
Civil Society. Frustration with the current government's shortcomings and a general feeling that certain areas of public life have been neglected in recent years have been leading to greater civic activism. Far-right groups, too, increased their activity during the year, managing to attract many local citizens to the troubling anti-crime, anti-Roma demonstrations that have spread in certain parts of the country. As positive and negative political messages compete for space in the public sphere, the Czech Republic's civil society rating remains unchanged at 1.75.
Independent Media. Czech media are independent and diverse, with one of the strongest public broadcasting systems in the region. No significant threats to press freedom emerged in 2012, but several cases of irresponsible reporting on alleged Roma criminality raised ethnic tensions. The Czech Republic's rating for independent media remains unchanged at 2.50.
Local Democratic Governance. Although clientelism and cronyism in local politics remain widespread, local governments have continued to prove their competence at delivering public services and to increase their relative popularity among citizens. Local politicians have pushed their constituents' interests on the national level, with increased success over the past year at redistributing tax income more equitably to smaller towns and cities. The Czech Republic's rating for local democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 1.75.
Judicial Framework and Independence. After major personnel changes, the state attorney's office, the weakest link in the judicial system, showed an unprecedented commitment to pursuing even politically sensitive cases, such as the dramatic arrest of regional governor David Rath. Due to a string of such high-profile investigations and evident political willingness for them to continue, the Czech Republic's judicial framework and independence rating improves from 2.00 to 1.75.
Corruption. The government has made real progress in addressing corruption through legislative improvements, but most of the changes made so far have been minor compared to the major reforms that activists have demanded. Unfortunately, a wide range of corruption-related scandals have detracted from the positive work now being done. Buttressed by 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 Czech Republic's corruption rating, which remains unchanged at 3.25.
Outlook for 2013. Following changes to the coalition government (including numerous defections), the ruling parties can now count on only 99 parliamentary deputies for support. This means that the passage of any legislation will depend once again on independents, something that had seemed far-fetched after the 2010 elections led to a government with a solid majority. With a new energy strategy and more reforms on the agenda for 2013 – including in higher education and health care – nothing will come easily for the ruling parties.
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. 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.
There was reason to believe that the situation would change following the May 2010 parliamentary elections. A new coalition between 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. Petr Nečas of ODS took over as prime minister during a time of rising optimism that this government would have the support necessary to implement serious reforms the previous administrations had been too weak to pursue.
By the end of 2012, however, the vast majority of Czechs were deeply disappointed with the performance of the Nečas government. They were repeatedly told of the need for belt-tightening, higher taxes, and budget cuts, all amid a seemingly uninterrupted string of corruption scandals. A total of 12 ministers had resigned by year's end, many of them over accusations of corruption or dubious financial dealings in their past. Public perception of high-level graft and insular in-fighting have sullied the cabinet's reputation, despite some policy successes that included tax reforms to cut the budget deficit, pension and health reforms, and the long-delayed passage of a church restitution law.
The parliamentary majority of the ruling coalition became shakier and shakier as one coalition party after another succumbed to infighting or scandal. In April 2011, Transport Minister Vít Bárta – the de facto leader of VV – resigned after the daily Mlada fronta DNES newspaper published documents strongly suggesting that he had cynically pursued political office in order to secure lucrative state contracts for his security company. In April 2012, Bárta received an 18-month suspended sentence when a court found him guilty of attempting to use large, interest-free loans to buy the loyalty of two VV parliamentary deputies. One of those deputies, Jaroslav Škárka, received three years in prison for fraud, as the court ruled that he had taken the money as part of a plan to discredit Bárta. After the bribery conviction, VV split, with Bárta heading for the opposition with most of the party's deputies; the others formed a new party around Deputy Prime Minister Karolína Peake called LIDEM, which became the new coalition partner. By the time the dust settled, the coalition had only 99 votes and no clear majority.
A group of rebels from the ODS also attempted to take down the government in the fall of 2012, ostensibly over the higher tax package. Ultimately, having failed to attract a critical mass of dissenters at the ODS party congress, the three leading rebels resigned their seats. They were replaced with loyalists, the legislation passed, and the government survived a connected confidence vote. One of the replacement deputies was Roman Pekárek, who had been sentenced to six years in prison for corruption.
The corrupt intersection of business and high-level political interests remained a key theme throughout 2012. In March, a leaked series of recorded conversations between former Prague Mayor Pavel Bém and private lobbyist Roman Janoušek shed light on the unsavory business and political practices at City Hall during the 2007-09, ODS-led government.
All of these developments, which occurred as a number of austerity measures were being implemented, contributed to plummeting support for the government and the lower house of parliament. According to a poll by the CVVM research agency in October 2012, both institutions saw a drop of around 50 percent in their "trust" figures over the past year. The same poll revealed only 4 percent of respondents to be satisfied with the political situation and 81 percent dissatisfied, an increase of 10 percent from last year.
Some commentators hold that the Czech parliamentary system affords individual deputies too much power by 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. The legislative process is further complicated by deputies' ability to make an unrestricted number of proposed amendments during the second reading of bills. In general, lobbying of 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.
In a rare show of agreement between the left and right, the lower house (in December 2011) and Senate (in February 2012) voted overwhelmingly to institute direct presidential elections, the first of which will take place in January 2013. Under the new legislation, candidates will need to collect signatures from 50,000 eligible voters, or from at least 20 deputies or 10 senators. 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. For example, despite government criticism of his activities, President Vaclav 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. The president has also sought out candidates closely tied to his political philosophy when appointing new governors to the central bank and new justices to the Constitutional Court.
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. Over the years, leading politicians have spoken out in favor of changes to electoral legislation that would supposedly foster stronger, more stable governments and eliminate the need to rely on rebels and outcasts from other parties to pass legislation. No such changes took place in 2012, though the Nečas cabinet did approve an amendment to introduce the so-called constructive vote of non-confidence, whereby parliamentary deputies would need to combine such a vote with the selection of a new prime minister. Some critics have argued, however, that the current form of the bill, which has yet to pass a first reading in parliament, would not provide any additional stability.
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.
By the time regional and Senate elections took place in October 2012, virtually all of the enthusiasm generated by the parliamentary elections of May 2010 – which had served as a partial rejection of the old political elite – had worn off. As predicted, the TOP 09-VV-ODS government's poor public standing, combined with the introduction of austerity measures, led to a resounding defeat for the governing parties and a victory for the left. The ČSSD won 13 seats in the Senate, regaining its majority, while the ODS captured only four seats. In the regional elections, ČSSD technically won the elections, but gained 10 percent less than the results from 2008 with drops in all regions. ODS took home only around 12 percent of the vote and won 72 fewer seats in regional assemblies than during the 2008 elections; the party's only victory was in Plzeň, with former Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil, whom Nečas had fired in June, leading the ODS slate. Voter participation was very low at 37 percent, but was the second highest total since 2000.
The real winners were the Communists, who came in second in the number of votes nationwide. With 182 seats in regional assemblies (a gain of 68), the KSČM won outright in two regions (compared with nine for the ČSSD) and saw the election of its first, post-1989 regional governor (in the Usti region). The ČSSD and KSČM agreed on coalitions in another seven regions, where the Communists will serve as the junior partner, and in one region, the ČSSD has formed a minority regional government supported by the KSČM. In the Senate elections, a record number of Communist candidates advanced to the second round, even in Prague. The loss of so many votes for the mainstream political parties – on the left and right – continued longer-running trends and suggested that a majority of Czechs have difficulty finding a party that they can enthusiastically support.
The lead-up to the country's first direct presidential elections, planned for January 2013, was complicated after the Ministry of the Interior rejected three of the 11 candidates for not having the 50,000 signatures required to compete in the poll. Each candidate had submitted enough signatures to qualify, but ministry officials dismissed thousands of them as invalid. Critics said that the ministry had used the wrong calculation method to extrapolate final figures from sample test groups of signatures; the ministry countered that the law was open to several interpretations. After the three rejected candidates filed complaints, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled to reinstate only one of them, saying the ministry had indeed used the wrong calculation, but that the other two still did not have enough signatures to qualify for the election. The court also rejected complaints from six candidates who had been unable to collect 50,000 signatures and had attacked the law on direct presidential elections as unconstitutional. One of them took his case to the Constitutional Court, potentially delaying the election.
Political party membership is very low and appears to be declining, almost across the board. The KSČM is the largest party (around 54,000 members, down from 60,000 the year before), followed by the KDU-ČSL (35,000), the ODS (around 24,500, down from 30,500), the ČSSD (around 23,000, standing relatively steady), TOP 09 (3,600, down from 5,000), and the SZ (around 1,400, down from 2,000). The new LIDEM party has a mere 200 members. The lack of enthusiasm to join partially relates to public perception. A 2011 poll by the Center for Public Opinion revealed that 81 percent of respondents consider political parties above-average or highly corrupt, more so than any other public institution.
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. With such small membership bases, different interest groups can also more easily hijack the party agenda. In addition, low party membership has contributed to a phenomenon known as "whalehunting" whereby wealthy businesspeople (so-called "godfathers") allegedly "buy" new party members in return for greater influence in parties' regional or local structures. For many, Prime Minister Nečas's choice of Martin Kuba – a man with known ties to a famous regional "godfather" – as the new minister of industry in fall 2011 and Kuba's election as first deputy party chairman in November 2012 confirmed to some that regional heavyweights would continue to pull above their weight in the government. Party financing continues to operate with little regulation, as current legislation contains numerous loopholes that allow companies with opaque ownership structures or other interest groups to provide donations to parties allegedly in exchange for influence over certain political decisions. Prime Minister Nečas, however, has pledged to pass legislation targeting a wide range of nontransparent campaign and party funding practices, and the interior ministry submitted a draft bill to the government in fall 2012 that anti-corruption organizations have widely praised.
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. Roma are, however, active at the local level. Mainstream parties apparently believe that placing Roma candidates on their lists may do them more harm than good among average voters.
Czech nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have recovered from the scandals that tarnished their early postcommunist existence. Most Czechs now see NGOs as influential organizations, helpful in solving social problems, and essential to a 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 passage of a new civil code in 2012 will bring about large-scale changes for most NGOs by the time the law takes effect in January 2014. The code clarifies the legal status of civil society organizations according to their function, modifying some current categories and creating others. The term "Public Benefit Status," mentioned in the new code, still lacks precise specification, however, and NGOs are working toward clarifying its meaning and negotiating with the Ministry of Finance on the tax implication of this status.
The Ministry of Justice is now preparing a new law regulating public registry of companies and other organizations, and indications are that civic associations (the most prevalent type of NGO) will have their own separate register administered by the Ministry of the Interior. NGO leaders have expressed worries that the new registry will not be as transparent as the current one. The new legislation will also not apparently solve the lack of a central registry of civil society organizations, which would improve the sector's transparency and increase its ability to attract more private donations; instead, individual places of registration, including courts and ministries, will keep their own records of registered organizations.
The state is the largest funder of NGOs, providing extensive financial support through grants and coordinating nonprofit activities through the Council for NGOs. 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. Meanwhile, some politicians – most notably President Klaus – maintain that 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.
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 nonprofits have launched campaigns to raise funds from individual supporters and experiment with social entrepreneurship ventures, though Czech law provides extremely low tax incentives for individual donations and many civil society organizations still struggle to make ends meet. However, advocacy groups have become more influential, partly connected to the government's willingness to rely on their advice in key areas such as the fight against corruption and for increased transparency. Civil society seems to be more active than just a few years ago, including on the local level and often through the efforts of dedicated individuals fighting for their rights.
Unfortunately, far-right extremist organizations have also increased their presence in recent years, forming alliances with established political parties such as the far-right Workers' Party of Social Justice (DSSS). The DSSS – which reconstituted itself after its previous incarnation, the Workers' Party (DS), was banned in 2010 – played a major role in the large-scale ethnic unrest that wracked the northern part of the Czech Republic in the summer and fall of 2011, the worst outbreak of tensions between the Roma and majority communities in the country's history. The DSSS remained active throughout 2012, participating in various anti-Roma activities, such as the rallies organized in April 2012 after a boy (falsely) claimed to have been attacked by Roma. In a mock student election organized in September by the People in Need organization, the DSSS passed the threshold necessary to enter parliament, coming in third overall and even winning, with 18.4 percent, in northern Bohemia. The appeal of the far right among young people was also one of the main conclusions of a report commissioned by the Interior Ministry that was released in March 2012. The study – led by Miroslav Mareš, an expert on extremism at Charles University – concluded that almost 65 percent of far-right supporters in the country were under 25, a group typically more active in spreading hate speech in social networks and engaging in regularly held extremist concerts.
Press freedom has long been secure in the Czech Republic, and no major media are state owned. The 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. However, some analysts have noted that the last few elections have prompted a relapse, with the press returning to the political bias of the 1990s both before and after the May 2010 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. Some of the main dailies have added tabloid-like elements to attract readers. However, they have also shown more investigative initiative regarding allegations of improper and illegal behavior among politicians, regardless of party affiliation. Revelations by the press led directly to the resignation of a number of ministers in 2011 and 2012. Such efforts have been aided by the June 2011 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 2011 amendment allows the publication of police wiretaps in cases of public interest. Laws criminalizing defamation remain on the books, but prosecutions are rare and are not widely considered a threat to media independence.
Sensationalism sometimes leads to irresponsible spreading of ultimately false information, at times with a racial subtext. In 2012, many media outlets, including some of the most popular online sites (iDNES.cz and Novinky.cz), jumped to report the news that a group of Roma had attacked a 15-year-old boy in the Moravian town of Břeclav. After racial tensions soared and extremists organized anti-Roma marches, it emerged that the boy had made up the story after injuring himself during a prank for friends. Activists have also repeatedly complained that the most popular commercial station, TV Nova, regularly broadcasts news of alleged Roma criminality, raising ethnic tensions and anti-Roma feelings in Czech society.
The economic downturn has also stunted the regional newspaper market as sharp drop-offs in advertising income helped kill off new ventures, leaving VLP – a German-controlled chain with over 70 publications – in its traditional, dominant position. In recent years, some media analysts have also started to worry about the concentration of the national press in the hands of a few business moguls, including one that owns the country's largest media buying agency. Concerns have also been raised about the channeling of advertising for state-owned companies to select media allegedly in exchange for political loyalty.
The public television and radio stations, Czech TV and Czech Radio, have also contributed to the country's high rankings in press freedom indexes. In the past, Czech TV's financial difficulties have made it particularly vulnerable to political and business interests, but the overall financial situation has improved greatly, and there have been no high-profile clashes between politicians and Czech TV in recent years. The station still boasts public affairs programs – which have largely disappeared from private media – that should make it the envy of virtually any other public broadcaster in the postcommunist region.
With the stated aim of preventing public broadcasters from chasing advertising dollars at the expense of balanced and high-quality programming, effective 1 January 2012 the government has banned advertising on two of CTV's channels – the main channel and the 24-hour news channel. The advertising limit for the two other Czech TV stations – the culture/arts channel and the sports channel – remained at 0.5 percent of daily broadcasting time. 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 warned 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. For some, the advertising ban represents one more example of powerful political lobbying by commercial stations to the detriment of public broadcasters.
A case of conflict of interest arose in November 2012 when Radek John, a well-known investigative journalist before becoming the head of the Public Affairs (VV) party, decided to return to journalism but still keep his seat in parliament and membership of the security and immunity committees, where he would have access to confidential information. Responding to a wave of criticism from across the political spectrum and throughout the media, the lower house of parliament voted to remove him from both committees. The governing coalition has also pledged to pass a new law changing the system for electing the members of the supervisory board of Czech TV in order to reduce the potential for political influence of public TV, especially the news.
Local Democratic Governance:
Although slow in coming, the development of local government structures and authority has become one of the Czech Republic's major accomplishments. 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 are effective 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. Opinion polls have also shown that most Czechs tend to trust their local representatives much more than those on the national level. Research by the CVVM agency in October 2012 showed a trust rating of 36 percent for regional governors (compared to 10 percent for parliamentary deputies) and 55 percent for local town halls (a drop of around 10 percentage points from the year before). Those generally higher trust ratings, however, could not save many local politicians affiliated with the ruling parties from defeat in the 2012 regional elections. According to the STEM polling agency, which interviewed people after the election, most Czechs opted for left-wing parties in the regional elections as a protest vote; only 4 percent of respondents said they voted for the Communists because of their regional politics and the quality of their candidates.
In most matters, regions essentially act as middlemen for the state, sending the bulk of their budgets 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 less money per capita than big cities. In June 2012, however, the lower house approved a proposal from TOP 09 and the Mayors and Independents (STAN) that raised the amount of money allocated to small municipalities from 6,800 crowns per inhabitant to 9,000, at the expense of the country's largest cities, which will lose a total 1.1 billion crowns per year.
On the negative side, local "bosses" still often control regional party cells, which, in turn, choose candidates for parliament and the Senate, and elect party chairmen. That has meant, in practice, that local heavyweights with dubious reputations have sometimes had a disproportionate share in creating local party lists and setting overall party policy. Moreover, 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. 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 oversight of regional and local governments.
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 president of the Czech Republic 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.
The Czech Republic is the only European country where the executive has such a large influence over the composition of the state attorney's office: the government names the highest state attorney on the recommendation of the minister of justice, while the minister of justice, on the recommendation of the highest state attorney, appoints state attorneys. S/he can also initiate disciplinary proceedings against them.
Supreme State Attorney Pavel Zeman has taken a number of steps to improve the transparency and independence of the institution. Since coming to office in 2011, Zeman has re-installed independent-minded attorneys removed by his predecessors, replaced the ineffectual lead prosecutor in Prague, and emboldened state prosecutors to tackle politically sensitive cases. Many political observers believe that it is only because of these efforts that a wave of high-profile corruption cases then dominated headlines in the fall: the deputy governor of the notorious Usti region was arrested for the misuse of EU funds; Marek Dalík, the right-hand man of former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, was charged with asking an Austrian arms producer in 2007 for a bribe to mediate the sale of armed vehicles to the Czech army; the deputy minister of labor, Vladimir Šiška, was charged with bribery over a manipulated public tender, prompting the resignation of Labor Minister Jaromír Drábek, who had appointed Šiška, his friend and business associate, to the job; and Roman Pekárek, a former deputy mayor and then parliamentary deputy, was sentenced to five years in prison for bribery. In May, an investigation by the state attorney's office led to the arrest of David Rath, governor of the Central Bohemia region, who was allegedly caught red-handed with a wine box full of seven million crowns in alleged kickbacks. A high-ranking Social Democrat, Rath will face bribery and fraud charges for his role in an alleged manipulated tender.
In June, Prime Minister Nečas sacked reform-minded Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil, citing his alleged mismanagement of the ministry and inability to make necessary budget cuts. Many people saw the sacking as connected to the minister's attempts to increase the independence of the state prosecutor's office, especially since Pospíšil was on the verge of naming a tough-minded new head of the Prague prosecutor's office: regional prosecutor Lenka Bradáčová, who had made a name for herself in the Rath case. It took weeks for Pospíšil's successor, Pavel Blažek, to follow through on Bradáčová's appointment, despite the fact that it had already been approved by Zeman.
In November 2011, the ruling coalition agreed on radical changes to the law on the state attorney's office to increase the independence for prosecutors and dissolve the high state attorney's offices in Prague and Olomouc, replacing them with a special team of prosecutors focused on major corruption and criminal cases. Until he was fired, Pospíšil seemed intent on pushing the legislation forward, but his successor put the bill back into the consultation phase. The special anticorruption unit now seems likely to starting work no sooner than 2015.
Parliamentary immunity is more rarely invoked under the current government. Rath (who was disowned by his own party) and former defense minister Vlasta Parkanová (accused of abuse of public office and breach of trust for a suspect military airplane deal), both had their immunity stripped in 2012 so that their investigations could continue. Despite such cases, parliamentarians still didn't manage to pass a long-awaited constitutional amendment to remove lifelong immunity for members of both houses and constitutional court judges. In April 2012, it was thought that public pressure and support across the political spectrum would impel the Senate to pass the latest version, which the lower house had already approved in February, but the bill missed approval by just two votes.
The Czech Republic is the only EU country without functioning civil service legislation. The Law on the Civil Service was approved in 2002, but has never taken effect; its starting date has been repeatedly delayed owing to political disputes. Without such legislation, changes in political leadership lead to frequent rotations of officials and an unstable public administration that lags behind in efforts at modernization. The European Commission has also linked political interference in the civil service as a major reason for the failure to draw millions of European funds. In 2012, Brussels suspended the distribution of funds to the Czech Republic over allegations of mismanagement and fraud. In November, the Interior Ministry finally presented a draft civil service law, but anticorruption organizations criticized the bill for strengthening political influence, especially through the creation of thousands of new assistants for various politicians in the state administration.
In contrast, the Interior Ministry received praise for a proposed law on financing political parties that included several key improvement on existing legislation: obligatory, transparent accounts for electoral campaigns; more detailed annual reports; independent audits; and the creation of a supervisory office that would monitor the implementation of the law and issue sanctions. Anticorruption organizations called on the government to quickly approve the draft, including the supervisory office, but as of December 2012 the government had recommended more discussion and feedback on the law.
In a worrying sign that some members of the political elite still do not accept the independence of law enforcement forces, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek contacted a police investigator looking into charges that his long-time political ally, Vlasta Parkanová, had signed off on a massively overpriced military plane purchase when she was defense minister in 2009. Petr Lessy, the police president at the time, also said the finance minister had contacted him several times to complain about the investigation. Despite a media outcry and reprimand from Prime Minister Nečas, Kalousek insisted he had done nothing wrong and denied that he had threatened anyone over the case.
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. Although more women now hold seats in parliament than ever before, few attain other positions of political power.
Discrimination against the Roma in employment and housing also presents a serious problem. 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). However, a report published in November 2012 by Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Center concluded that very little progress had been made since the 2007 ruling. The two organizations argued that that Roma were overrepresented in schools and classes designed for children with mild disabilities (so-called "practical schools") and generally remained excluded from a mainstream, integrated education. 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, despite estimates of at least 200,000 Roma in the country.
Although few people encounter corruption directly, the perception of illegal activity, especially concerning the political elite, is widespread. Many view existing anticorruption measures as insufficient to dismantle the intricate web of connections between political and business elites.
A December 2011 report by the Czech branch of Transparency International (TI) found the institutions least capable of effectively fighting corruption to be the state attorney's office and the state administration, followed by the police. In general, excessive politicization has led to unwillingness across the system to actively move against corruption cases with a political subtext. The best-evaluated pillars in TI's study were the ombudsman's office and the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ). The annual report of the domestic secret services (BIS) also warned about the influence of organized crime in both the national and local administration, as well as the justice system; clientelistic networks, the report said, had created parallel power structures and had been able to interfere in the decision-making process in a number of cities.
The new government came to power in 2010 with the fight against corruption as one of its main tenets. The coalition began to deliver on these promises in 2011 and 2012, though many of its accomplishments were overshadowed by political scandals involving its own members. Among the more important changes implemented in 2012 was an amendment to the Law on Public Tenders lowering the amount threshold beyond which public contracts must be opened to a bidding process. Previously, this threshold had been among the highest in Europe. According to TI's David Ondráčka, government agencies rushed to approve contracts before the law came into effect; they then awarded only a few in the first months as they tried to understand the new regulations; and finally, they started to issue more tenders in the fall. As a result, the impact of the legal changes on corruption was still unknown at year's end.
New legislation introducing criminal liability for companies came into effect in 2012 and should be a powerful instrument for fighting economic crime and corruption. In the past, individual managers or other employees could be blamed for improprieties, but the new legislation should act as a form of prevention, making companies, including international conglomerates, more responsible for the behavior of their personnel in the Czech Republic.
Some parliamentary deputies also appear determined to change the status quo. Led by Jan Farsky, who made a name for himself by instituting strict public tenders as mayor of the city of Semily, 50 deputies from all parliamentary parties submitted a key anti-corruption bill – which has been lauded by anti-corruption organizations – that would mandate that the majority of public contracts only come into validity once they are publicized on the Internet.
In November, the government gave a green light to a proposed amendment to the anti-discrimination law that aims to provide greater protection for whistleblowers, including shifting the burden of proof from employees to their employers in case an individual is fired after reporting corruption. While anti-corruption activists recognized the bill as an important first step, they lamented the cabinet's decision to limit the legislation to the public sector and criminal offenses. Parliament is expected to approve the amendment by mid-2013.
Lack of transparency in major business deals involving the state remains a serious problem at both national and local levels. NKÚ has uncovered massive irregularities and overspending on various government contracts. Politicians generally ignore these findings – presumably, in part, because current law does not allow the NKÚ to impose sanctions of any kind. The same fate also often befalls rulings by the respected ombudsman's office. The long court case against the former NKÚ head, František Dohnal, over financial mismanagement of the organization itself and his state-financed rental of a luxury flat has also damaged the agency's reputation. Though Dohnal was later cleared of wrongdoing with the flat (including for a third time in November), he was found guilty in July 2011 of abuse of office and handed a suspended sentence for repeatedly blocking attempts by parliament's budget committee to review the NKÚ's accounting. Even informed observers had difficulty concluding whether Dohnal had done anything wrong or whether this was a case of political pressure on an independent institution. Throughout 2012, parliament proved incapable of selecting a successor to Dohnal, but the office appeared to function normally even with just an acting president.
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.
1 Bárta claimed that he was only trying to help his fellow party members escape the consequences of the lower salaries for legislators that had been mandated by a new law.
2 At the time, Pekárek was awaiting an appeal, which was denied in mid-December.
4 "Czechs' Trust in Government Plummeting," Prague Monitor, 24 October 2012, http://praguemonitor.com/2012/10/25/czechs-trust-government-plummeting.
5 Vlastimil Havlík, "Ústavní galimatyáš na pokračování" [Constitutional mishmash continues], Revue Politika, 21 November 2012, http://www.revuepolitika.cz/clanky/1770/ustavni-galimatyas-na-pokracovani.
6 Silvie Lauder, "Velké malé vítězství," [Big small victory], Respekt, 14 October 2012.
7 Paulína Tabery, Mínění veřejnosti o korupci mezi veřejnými představiteli a v jednotlivých oblastech [Public opinion about corruption among public representatives in individual areas] (Prague: CVVM, 13 May 2011).
8 Transparency International, Doporučení ke změnám regulace financování politických stran v ČR [Recommendations on changes to the regulation of the financing of political parties in the Czech Republic] (Berlin: Transparency International, 18 September 2012), http://www.transparency.cz/doc/aktuality/2012-09-18_Pozicni_dokument_nevladnich_organizaci_k_hospodareni_stran.pdf.
9 Spiralis Non-profit Assistance Organization, "Změny v legislativě pro NNO" [Changes in NGO legislation], http://www.spiralis-os.cz/index.php/zmeny-v-legislative-pro-nno.
10 Interview with Robert Basch, executive director, Open Society Fund Prague, 27 November 2012.
11 Adam Sura, "Dobro za všechny peníze" [The good for all that money], Respekt, 1-7 March 2010.
12 Silvie Lauder, "Jak vzali Češi osud do vlastních rukou" [How Czechs took things into their own hands], Respekt, 3 November 2012.
13 Ondřej Kůs, Studentské volby na severu Čech vyhrála Vandasova DSSS [Vandas's DSSS won student elections in north Bohemia], iDNES.cz, 7 September 2012, http://zpravy.idnes.cz/studentske-volby-v-usteckem-kraji-d5i-/domaci.aspx?c=A120907_124028_usti-zpravy_oks.
14 Benjamin Cunningham, "The New Faces of Far-Right Extremism," The Prague Post, 7 March 2012, http://www.praguepost.com/news/12428-the-new-faces-of-far-right-extremism.html.
15 Jiří Pehe, "Šéfredaktoři deníků v roli propagandistů" [Editors-in-chief in the role of government propagandists], Pehe.cz, 28 May 2010, http://www.pehe.cz/zapisnik/sefredaktori-deniku-v-roli-propgandistu.
16 International Press Institute, Press Freedom Audit Report: Czech Republic (Vienna: International Press Institute, 13-14 May 2009): 10-11, http://www.freemedia.at/fileadmin/media/Documents/IPI_general/Press_Freedom_Audit_Report_Czech_Republic.pdf.
17 Martina Vojtěchovská, "Proč krachují tituly v regionech?" [Why are publications in the regions going bankrupt?], Mediaguru.cz, 27 June 2011, http://www.mediaguru.cz/2011/06/proc-krachuji-tituly-v-regionech/#.UhYrW2Sgw7Q.
18 Marius Dragomir, "In the Czech Republic, New Masters for the Old Media," Transitions Online, 11 June 2012, http://www.tol.org/client/article/23205-in-the-czech-republic-new-masters-for-the-old-media.html.
19 Václav Štětka, Czech Republic: A Country Report for the ERC-Funded Project on Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (Oxford: University of Oxford, 12 August 2012), http://mde.politics.ox.ac.uk/images/stories/documents/czech%20republic%20report_updated_aug12_final.pdf.
20 Open Society Foundations, "Mapping Digital Media: Czech Republic," 2012 (unpublished draft).
21 "John Sacked from Parliamentary Committees over Media Job," The Prague Monitor, 12 November 2012, http://praguemonitor.com/2012/11/12/john-sacked-parliamentary-committees-over-media-job.
22 Daniel Kunštát, Důvěra ústavním institucím v říjnu 2012 [Trust in constitutional institutions in October 2012], (Prague: CVVM, 24 October 2012). http://cvvm.soc.cas.cz/media/com_form2content/documents/c1/a6902/f3/pi121024.pdf
23 "Poll: Most Czechs Do Not Mind Communists Taking Power in Regions," The Prague Monitor, 21 November 2012, http://praguemonitor.com/2012/11/21/poll-most-czechs-do-not-mind-communists-taking-power-regions.
24 Josef Kopecký, "Gazdíkovi starostové píší Nečasovi: Dodržte svůj slib o rozdělení daní" [Gazdík's mayors write to Nečas: Keep your promise about the allocation of taxes], iDNES.cz, 17 September 2011, http://zpravy.idnes.cz/gazdikovi-starostove-pisi-necasovi-dodrzte-svuj-slib-o-rozdeleni-dani-1m4-/domaci.aspx?c=A110917_105442_domaci_kop.
25 Josef Kopecký, "Poslanci sebrali miliardu velkoměstům, přidali peníze menším obcím" [Deputies took a million from the big cities and gave the money to small municipalities], iDNES.cz, 13 July 2012, http://zpravy.idnes.cz/male-obce-dostanou-vic-penez-velkomestum-se-ubere-f7v-/domaci.aspx?c=A120713_071504_domaci_kop.
26 Jan Richter, "Czech Ex-Prime Minister's Aide, Charged with Corruption, Released from Custody," Czech Radio, 11 October 2012, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-ex-prime-ministers-aide-charged-with-corruption-released-from-custody#0.
27 Jan Velinger, "Bradáčová Appointed High State Attorney," Czech Radio, 31 July 2012, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/bradacova-appointed-high-state-attorney.
28 Jůn, "PM Calls Parkanová Immunity Vote the Only Logical Step," Czech Radio, 12 July 2012, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/news/news-2012-07-12#2.
29 "EU Criticising Czech Politicians over Dominating Civil Service," ČeskéNoviny.cz, 14 November 2012, http://www.ceskenoviny.cz/news/zpravy/eu-criticising-czech-politicians-over-dominating-civil-service/865654.
30 Marek Svehla, "Česká monokultura" [Czech monoculture], Respekt, 12-18 July 2010, http://respekt.ihned.cz/c1-44750830-ceska-monokultura.
31 Open Society Justice Initiative, "Major Conclusions from the D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic's Judgment," news release, 14 November 2007, http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/focus/equality_citizenship/news/roma_20071114.
32 "Czech Government Still Failing to Address Discrimination against Romani Children in Schools," Amnesty International, 8 November 2012. http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/czech-government-still-failing-address-discrimination-against-romani-children-schools-2012-11-0.
33 Czech Statistical Office, Preliminary results of the 2011 Population and Housing Census (Prague: Czech Statistical Office, 15 December 2011), http://www.czso.cz/sldb2011/eng/redakce.nsf/i/preliminary_results_of_the_2011_population_and_housing_census.
34 Transparency International Česká Republika, "Tisková zpráva k vydání Studie národní integrity" [Press statement on the publication of the Study of National Integrity], news release, 8 December 2011, http://www.transparency.cz/tiskova-zprava-k-vydani-studie-narodni-integr....
35 Interview with David Ondracka, November 2012.
36 Daniela Lazarová, "Czech Government Moves to Protect Whistleblowers," Czech Radio, 22 November 2012, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/czech-government-moves-to-protect-whistleblowers#0.
37 "Exšéf NKÚ Dohnal je nevinný, řekl i potřetí soud. Žalobce se odvolal" [Ex-head of NKÚ Dohnal is innocent, says the court for the third time. Prosector appeals.], Ihned.cz, 12 November 2012, http://zpravy.ihned.cz/cesko/c1-58459210-exsef-nku-dohnal-je-nevinny-rekl-opet-soud.