Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
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The Civic Democratic Party successfully formed a coalition government in January 2007, ending nearly seven months of deadlock following the June 2006 elections. A package of economic reform measures passed by a slim margin in August, staving off fears that opposition to the legislation would break up the fragile governing majority. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic struggled with discrimination issues.
Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 amid the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the turmoil of Nazi German occupation and World War II, Soviet forces helped establish a Communist government. In 1968, Soviet tanks crushed the so-called Prague Spring, a period of halting political liberalization under reformist leader Alexander Dubcek.
In December 1989, a series of peaceful anti-Communist demonstrations led by dissident Vaclav Havel and the Civic Forum opposition group resulted in the resignation of the government in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. 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 of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who became prime minister that year. In 1993, the state dissolved peacefully into separate Czech and Slovak republics, and Havel became president of the former.
Close parliamentary elections in 1998 led to Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) control of the government, although an “opposition agreement” between the CSSD and the ODS limited meaningful political competition and brought about several years of political gridlock. The CSSD won the 2002 elections, and Vladimir Spidla, the party’s chairman, became prime minister. Klaus won the February 2003 presidential poll.
In May 2004, the Czech Republic joined the European Union (EU), fulfilling one of the government’s most important goals. EU accession had required years of work to reach strict EU standards, such as the creation of a stable market economy, a consolidated democracy, a cleaner environment, and laws protecting minority rights. In the country’s first elections for the European Parliament in June 2004, the ruling CSSD secured just 9 percent of the vote, while the unreformed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) captured 20 percent. Spidla stepped down in favor of Stanislav Gross, who formed a new CSSD-led government with the same set of coalition partners: the Christian and Democratic Union–Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-CSL) and a free-market liberal party, Freedom Union–Democratic Union (US-DEU).
The CSSD was further weakened in 2005 by allegations of corruption and complaints from the opposition, which led to the collapse of the governing coalition in April. Jiri Paroubek replaced Gross as prime minister, and the CSSD formed a new government with its partners, the KDU-CSL and the US-DEU. The coalition held a bare majority, with 101 seats in the 200-seat lower house of Parliament.
The June 2006 elections continued the country’s tradition of political turmoil. On the left, the CSSD and the KSCM captured 100 seats (74 and 26, respectively). The other three parties winning seats—the ODS, the KDU-CSL, and the Greens—also won 100 (81, 13, and 6, respectively). Months of negotiations failed to produce a workable government, as no party was willing to work with the KSCM, which refuses to apologize for the repression of the Communist era. A short-lived government of the ODS, KDU-CSL, and Greens failed a confidence vote in October after serving only one month. The two largest parties—the ODS and CSSD—were unable to agree on a grand coalition due to personal and political differences. The ODS easily won local and Senate elections in late October, strengthening its public position and offering a possible way out of the impasse.
In January 2007, President Klaus reappointed Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek of the ODS, who had remained in office in a caretaker capacity since the last coalition collapsed. Topolanek’s new government—again consisting of the ODS, KDU-CSL, and Greens—narrowly won a parliamentary confidence vote on January 19 after two CSSD lawmakers abstained. The government managed to pass a package of economic reforms in August, overcoming a hurdle that had threatened to bring down the ruling coalition yet again.
The Czech Republic is an electoral democracy. Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the country has enjoyed free and fair elections. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has 200 members who are elected for four-year terms by proportional representation. The Senate has 81 members elected for six-year terms, with one-third up for election every two years. The president, elected by Parliament for five-year terms, appoints judges, the prime minister, and other cabinet members, but has few other formal powers. The prime minister, whose recommendations determine the cabinet appointments, relies on support from a majority in the Chamber of Deputies to govern.
The three largest political parties are the center-left CSSD; the center-right, market-oriented ODS; and the leftist KSCM. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, two other parties passed the 5 percent threshold required to enter the Chamber of Deputies: the KDU-CSL and, for the first time, the Greens.
The Czech Republic continues to confront remnants of the Communist era, including corruption that affects many sectors of society, especially government and business. The government has taken little action to improve transparency and prevent corruption. The Czech Republic was ranked 41 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is respected, although the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a document that forms part of the Czech constitution, 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 Parliament amended broadcasting laws to meet EU standards. The legislature in 2001 adopted a bill designed to limit political influence over Czech Television (CT), the state broadcaster. Under this law, nongovernmental groups, rather than politicians, nominate candidates for the CT’s governing council. In 2005, the Constitutional Court helped protect investigative journalism by ruling that journalists cannot be compelled to reveal their sources. Internet access is unrestricted.
The government generally upholds freedom of religion. A 2002 law that provides for the registration and regulation of religious groups, including pay for clergy, has been criticized by the Roman Catholic Church as unduly restrictive of its activities. In 2006, Muslim authorities were denied an exemption from the registration law that would have granted them permission and state financing for activities including religious instruction in schools and performing marriages; they had not met the law’s requirements for such status, including proof of membership equivalent to at least 0.1 percent of the Czech population. Academic freedom is widely respected in the Czech Republic.
Czech citizens may assemble peacefully, form associations, and petition the government. Trade unions and professional associations function freely. Judges, prosecutors, and members of the armed forces and police may not strike. On January 1, 2007, a new labor code came into effect despite criticism from trade unions. The code abolishes several restrictions of freedom of association but requires trade unions within a single enterprise to act in concert when conducting collective bargaining.
The independent judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Administrative Court, and high, regional, and district courts. There is also a Constitutional Court. Czech authorities in 2002 issued new guidelines to police and prison wardens, including improvements in short-term detention facilities. In October 2007, three of the five judges resigned their advisory council positions in protest over Supreme Court chairwoman Iva Brozova’s decisions on how staff should be admitted. Brozova in recent years has clashed with justice ministers and President Vaclav Klaus on a number of issues.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms gives minorities the right to participate in the resolution of matters pertaining to their group. A 1999 law restored citizenship to many residents, including Roma (Gypsies), who continue to experience discrimination. In 2001, Parliament approved legislation for the protection of ethnic minority rights, including the creation of a governmental minority council. However, in June 2007, the European Commission cited the Czech Republic for not fully incorporating principles of racial equality into its laws, and racist violence has risen. A Czech court in October issued the first judgment awarding financial compensation to a Romany woman who was involuntarily sterilized; several such cases are pending. Promoting denial of the Holocaust and inciting religious hatred are illegal. In September, the Senate passed a proposal to prohibit extremism and its symbols, specifically Nazism and communism. Should the proposal become law in 2008, the KSCM would be banned, as it has never renounced its hard-line Communist platform. Property ownership, choice of residence, and fair wages are legally protected, and citizens generally enjoy all of these rights in practice.
Gender discrimination is legally prohibited. However, sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be fairly common, and women are underrepresented at the highest levels of government and business. Trafficking of women and girls for prostitution remains a problem. The government has taken steps in recent years to strengthen the reporting and punishment of domestic violence.