Freedom in the World
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In April 2005, the unpopular prime minister, Stanislav Gross, was unseated after a minor personal scandal. However, the governing coalition held together, and Jiri Paroubek replaced Gross. Paroubek subsequently revived some of his party's popularity and the governing coalition's viability.
Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soviet troops helped establish the Communist People's Party of Czechoslovakia in 1948, renamed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1960. In 1968, Soviet tanks crushed the so-called Prague Spring led by reformist leader Alexander Dubcek.
In December 1989, an anti-Communist opposition led by dissident Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum brought down the Czechoslovak government. The country's first post-Communist elections were held the following year. In 1992, a new constitution and Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms were adopted, and the country began an ambitious program of political and economic reform under Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus. A leading figure in the ruling center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Klaus became prime minister the same year. In 1993, the state dissolved peacefully into the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Havel became president of the new Czech Republic. In 1997, Klaus resigned amid allegations of corruption in the ODS.
Close parliamentary elections in 1998 brought about Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) control of the government, although the ODS managed to negotiate control of key government positions. This "opposition agreement" between the CSSD and the ODS drained meaningful political competition and brought about several years of political gridlock. The last parliamentary election to the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) was held in June 2002, and a by-election to the Senate (upper house) took place in November 2002. The CSSD secured the most votes, and Vladimir Spidla, the party's chairman, became the new prime minister.
In the February 2003 presidential poll, Klaus was elected on the third round of voting following two inconclusive ballots. Klaus obtained 142 votes, a single vote more than the 141 needed from the 281-member joint parliamentary session. Though the presidency is mainly symbolic, Klaus has made use of the position to push his own policy preferences.
In May 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union (EU), fulfilling one of the government's most important goals. Accession to the EU had required years of work to reach tough EU standards, such as the creation of a stable market economy, a consolidated democracy, a cleaner environment, and laws protecting minority rights. Most Czechs took pride in "returning" to Europe's mainstream after the Communist era. The Czech Republic was one of the richest countries from Central Europe to join the EU in 2004.
In the country's first elections for the European Parliament, in June 2004, the government was soundly beaten: the CSSD took just 9 percent of the vote. The unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia surged to 20 percent. Prime Minister Spidla, humiliated, stepped down in favor of Stanislav Gross, who formed a new government including the same parties from the previous one. Despite their strong results, the Communists were shut out of government again.
The CSSD performed poorly again in regional and Senate elections in November 2004, and the party's popularity continued to weaken. This situation was exacerbated in 2005 when it was revealed that Gross had purchased a more expensive apartment than it seemed he would be able to afford on his government salary, and then inadequately explained how he had secured the loan. Allegations of corruption and complaints from the opposition buckled the three-party governing coalition in April. However, after Jiri Paroubek was chosen prime minister, the CSSD once again formed a coalition government with its partners: the Christian and Democratic Union- Czechoslovak People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the free-market liberal party, Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU). The coalition holds a bare majority, 101 seats of 200, in the lower house of Parliament. Paroubek nonetheless surprised expectations of his being a weak caretaker by proposing economic reforms, including lowering taxes for lower- and middle-income workers. The CSSD's popularity has revived somewhat. Lower-house elections are due by June 2006.
Although progress has been made toward establishing the mechanisms and institutions of a full market economy-and EU membership will help further with this- the economic sector requires further reform. A substantial part of state-owned property was privatized during the early to mid-1990s on the basis of a "voucher" program, under which Czech citizens were permitted to buy vouchers entitling them to bid for shares in selected companies. Power stations, oil and gas networks, banks, and the social and pension insurance sectors were among the strategic holdings exempt from the privatization program. Greater strides were made after 1999, when the government initiated an effort to revitalize Czech industry that sought to prepare public enterprises for privatization through internal reform and debt restructuring. The economy grew by 4.4 percent in 2004 and is expected to do similarly well in 2005. The Czech Republic is required by its EU membership to adopt the euro as its currency, and to do so it must reduce its budget deficit to the EU-mandated limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product, a feat that it will be difficult for the government to achieve.
Czech citizens can change their government democratically. Since shedding the Soviet yoke more than a decade ago, the Czech Republic has had a sound record of free and fair elections. Voters elect members of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, which constitute the Parliament. The Chamber of Deputies (lower house) has 200 members who are elected for four-year terms by proportional representation, and the Senate (upper house) has 81 members, elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the senators being replaced every two years. The president, elected by the National Assembly for a five-year term (with a maximum of two subsequent terms), appoints judges, the prime minister, and other cabinet members, but has few other formal powers. The prime minister relies on support from a majority of members of the Chamber of Deputies to govern.
The three biggest political parties are the center-left Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), the center-right, free-market Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM). Two smaller center-right parties joined in a coalition for the 2002 election: the Christian and Democratic Union- Czechoslovak People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU).
The Czech Republic continues to confront some difficult remnants of the Soviet legacy, including significant corruption that affects many sectors of Czech society. The Czech Republic was ranked 47 out of 159 countries surveyed Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is honored in the Czech Republic, although the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms prohibits threats against individual rights, state and public security, public health, and morality. The country's print and electronic media are largely in private hands. In 2000, the Law on Free Access to Information took effect and the Parliament amended broadcasting laws to meet EU standards. In 2001, the legislature passed an important bill designed to limit political influence over Czech Television (CT), the state broadcaster. Passage of the legislation helped end a standoff at CT between journalists and management. Under this law, nongovernmental groups, rather than politicians, nominate candidates for the CT's governing council, the body that controls the selection of CT's director. In January 2004, an editor for Respekt, a weekly newspaper known for its investigative work, was attacked, beaten, and sprayed with tear gas. Police closed the case without finding the perpetrators of the attack, which may have been connected to Respekt's investigations into criminal gangs in northern Bohemia. Internet access is unrestricted.
The government generally respects freedom of religion. A 2002 law that provides for the registration and regulation of churches, including pay for clergy, has been criticized by the Roman Catholic Church as unduly restrictive of its activities. In 2003, the Church won a judgment against a government decision to deny registration to a Church-run medical center. Academic freedom is widely respected in the Czech Republic.
Czech citizens may assemble peacefully, form associations, and petition the government. Civic organizations are, however, not as well developed as in other parts of Central Europe. Trade unions and professional associations function freely. Judges, prosecutors, and members of the armed forces and police may not strike. In 2003, the government's proposed fiscal-reform measures generated considerable opposition from the country's trade unions, including a major one-day strike in September by the teacher's union, in which more than 70,000 teachers reportedly took part.
The Czech Republic's independent judiciary consists of a Supreme Court, a Supreme Administrative Court, and high, regional, and district courts. There is also a Constitutional Court. In December 2001, President Vaclav Havel signed a bill on judicial reform but suggested he might challenge aspects of the law, hoping his challenge would "more widely and consistently separate judicial and executive power."
The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms gives minorities the right to help resolve matters pertaining to their group. A 1999 law restored citizenship to many residents, including Roma (Gypsies), who continue to experience discrimination. In 2001, the Parliament approved legislation for the protection of ethnic minority rights. The law's provisions include the creation of a governmental minority council. A number of anti-Semitic attacks were committed in 2003. Promoting denial of the Holocaust and inciting religious hatred are illegal. In 2005, the government proposed symbolic compensation for some of the Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II, though this proposal is somewhat controversial.
Property ownership, choice of residence, and fair wages are legally protected, and citizens generally enjoy all of these rights.
Gender discrimination is legally prohibited. Nevertheless, sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be fairly common. The government has taken steps in recent years to strengthen reporting of and punishment for domestic violence. Women are underrepresented in the highest levels of government and business.