Czech Republic | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Czech Republic

Czech Republic

Free
91/100
Overview: 

The Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy in which political rights and civil liberties are generally respected. However, in recent years, the country has experienced a number of corruption scandals and political disputes that hampered normal legislative activity. Illiberal rhetoric and the influence of powerful business entities in the political arena are increasingly visible.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • President Miloš Zeman won reelection in January, defeating Jiří Drahoš in the second round of voting. An online disinformation campaign, which analysts believe emanated from Russia, led to the circulation of rumors on social media that Drahoš had worked with the secret police during the Communist era, among other smears.
  • After nearly nine months of negotiations, in July, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš formed a coalition government consisting of his ANO 2011 party, the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM).
  • Corruption allegations against Babiš continued to roil Czech politics throughout the year. Media reports in November revealed that Babiš reportedly arranged for his son to be sent to Crimea against his will, in order to prevent him from being interrogated in the investigation of his father. The revelation led to a vote of no confidence in November, which the prime minister survived.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 36 / 40 (–1)

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The president is the head of state but holds limited powers, and is directly elected to up to two five-year terms. The January 2018 presidential election was considered credible. President Miloš Zeman of the Party of Civic Rights was reelected, defeating his opponent, Jiří Drahoš, in the second of voting. Zeman won 51.4 percent of the vote while Drahoš took 48.6 percent. An online disinformation campaign, which analysts believe emanated from Russia, led to the circulation of rumors on social media that Drahoš had worked with the secret police during the communist era, among other smears.

The prime minister is the head of government and holds most executive power. In December 2017, controversial billionaire Andrej Babiš of the ANO was sworn in as prime minister, following elections that were held in accordance with international standards.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, are elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. The Senate, the upper chamber, which holds limited legislative power, has 81 members elected for six-year terms, with one-third up for election every two years.

The ANO, led by Babiš, won 78 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the October 2017 legislative elections, followed by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) with 25, and the populist, anti-immigration Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party with 22. The polls were generally well administered, and the results broadly accepted by stakeholders.

Babiš was sworn in as prime minister in late 2017, but the mainstream parties refused to cooperate with him, and he struggled to assemble a coalition. Facing corruption allegations, Babiš lost a vote of no confidence in January 2018, raising doubts about his ability to form a government. In July, after nearly nine months of negotiations, the ANO, the ČSSD, and the KSČM successfully formed a coalition government.

The most recent Senate elections were held in October 2018, with 27 seats contested. The opposition ODS won the most seats, with 10.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

The electoral framework is robust and generally well implemented by the State Election Commission. However, the body does not always operate with transparency, and a 2017 Organization for Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) needs assessment mission expressed concern that its meetings were typically closed to the public and opposition representatives. The OSCE mission also criticized the decentralized procedures surrounding the maintenance of voter lists, which made the lists difficult to verify. However, the state of voter lists was not a major concern to any party during the 2017 and 2018 polls.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Political parties are free to form and operate. Since the 2013 elections, the political scene has seen somewhat of a shake-up, with the establishment ODS and the ČSSD losing support, and space opening up for the populist ANO, anti-immigration and nationalist SPD, and liberal Czech Pirate Party.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Power rotates between parties regularly. The opposition holds a significant bloc of seats in Parliament.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4

The influence of politically connected media outlets has been a growing concern in recent years, notably after a controversy arose in 2017 involving the daily newspaper MF Dnes, which is among the assets Babiš placed in a trust to comply with 2016 conflict-of-interest legislation. In a leaked recording, Babiš could apparently be heard directing one of the paper’s journalists to publish stories damaging to his political rivals. Babiš condemned the leaked recording, but did not deny its authenticity. Critics have accused Babiš of using MF Dnes and another newspaper his trust owns, Lidove noviny, as tools to advance his political and business interests.

The disinformation campaign on social media against Drahoš during the 2018 presidential race highlighted Russia’s influence on the political choices of Czech voters.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

By law, all citizens have full political rights and electoral opportunities. However, the Romany minority lacks meaningful political representation. Women increased their representation in Parliament in the 2017 elections, but remain underrepresented in politics and public bodies generally, and there are few initiatives aimed at boosting their political participation.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12 (–1)

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

Elected officials are duly installed and generally able to craft and implement policy. Political polarization and the controversy surrounding Babiš contributed to the drawn-out negotiations that left the country without a governing coalition through the first half of 2018.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4 (–1)

Corruption remains a problem in Czech politics, but institutions have generally been responsive to corruption allegations and scandals. An investigation into Babiš by Czech police and the European Anti-Fraud Office, which commenced in 2017 following allegations of improprieties regarding the disbursement of European Union (EU) subsidy funds to one of his firms, continued through the year. It was alleged that Babiš’s large conglomerate, Agrofert, had wrongfully accepted some 50 million crowns ($2 million) through its anonymous ownership of a farm and hotel complex. Fraud charges were filed against him in late 2017, and in January 2018, the Chamber of Deputies lifted Babiš’s immunity for the second time. In response, the prime minister claimed that the investigation was a politically motivated attack orchestrated by his rivals. Media reports that Babiš arranged for his son to be sent to Crimea against his will, in order to prevent him from being interrogated about the fraud allegations, led to another vote of no confidence in November.  Babiš survived the vote because ČSSD deputies abstained and KSČM members supported the prime minister.

In November, a leaked European Commission legal opinion concluded that despite Babiš’s formal transfer of Agrofert to two trusts, he still essentially retained ownership of the company, creating a conflict of interest due to the fact that the prime minister stands to benefit from the disbursement of EU funds that he has control over. Agrofert received €82 million ($96 million) in EU funds in 2018.

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to conflicts of interest arising from Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s failure to substantively divest himself from his sprawling agribusiness conglomerate, Agrofert.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4

Although the government generally operates with transparency, there is no law regulating lobbying. The government often fails to proactively publish information about procurement processes, public officials’ salaries, and public spending, and requires that members of the public request a time-sensitive password to view asset declarations online. In January 2018, new legislation came into force requiring that the “ultimate beneficial owners” of companies and trust funds be disclosed in a register. Although the register is not available to the public, law enforcement agencies, the courts, and several other entities can access it. Analysts viewed the register as a step forward for transparency and a tool for identifying conflicts of interest.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 55 / 60 (–1)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (–1)

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4 (–1)

The media operate relatively freely, and the government does not place undue restrictions on content. Legislation protects private ownership of media outlets, but concerns remain about the extent to which the media is controlled by wealthy business figures and its potential impact on journalists’ ability to investigate commercial interests.

Although Babiš placed his significant media holdings in a trust, the trust is controlled in part by Babiš’s close associates. Critics have accused both of his newspapers of biased coverage, claiming that they are being used as tools to advance the prime minister’s political interests. In September 2018, seasoned war reporter Petra Procházková resigned from Lidove noviny, citing political interference from the prime minister’s office in the paper’s editorial line.

Verbal and physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation of journalists were problems in 2018. Both Zeman and Babiš have made inflammatory remarks about the press, contributing to a hostile environment for journalists. In April, three investigative journalists released a statement asserting that they had been summoned for questioning several times regarding their reporting on the corruption allegations against the prime minister. In January, videos posted on social media showed reporters at President Zeman’s campaign headquarters being shoved and harassed on election night by supporters of the president.

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the continued intimidation and harassment of journalists by public officials, and the prime minister’s ability to exert influence through media outlets he retains control over.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4

The government generally upholds freedom of religion. Tax benefits and financial support are provided to registered religious groups. The state has initiated a process to return land confiscated from churches by the former communist regime, which will take place over the next 30 years.

However, anti-Islamic attitudes have increased in the wake of the refugee crisis confronting European states, and the country’s legal battle with the EU about accepting refugee quotas. The populist and anti-immigration SPD relied heavily on Islamophobic rhetoric during the 2017 election campaign, calling Islam “incompatible with freedom and democracy” and purchasing billboards that read “No to Islam.”

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is respected. Ceremonial presidential approval is required for academic positions.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

People are generally able to express controversial or political opinions without fear of surveillance or retribution.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

Freedom of assembly is upheld in practice, and demonstrations take place frequently and without incident. Thousands of protesters assembled in Prague in November 2018 to demand Prime Minister Babiš’s resignation over corruption allegations.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Tens of thousands of registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country, generally without interference from the government or security forces. However, the environment for civil society has grown increasingly antagonistic as the government and its allies have harshly criticized some critical NGOs. In January 2018, the SPD issued a statement accusing financier George Soros of imposing “supranational governance” on the country, and said it would support measures to curtail the impact of Soros’s Open Society Foundations on Czech society. In August, the ANO proposed sweeping cuts of $135 million (approximately 20 percent) to funding for Czech NGOs, which civil society leaders suspected would be aimed at organizations that focus on politics and governance.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

Trade unions and professional associations function freely, though they are weak in practice. Workers have the right to strike, though this right is limited for essential public employees, such as hospital workers and air traffic controllers.

F. RULE OF LAW: 14 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4

The judiciary is largely independent, though its complexity and multilayered composition have led to slow delivery of judgments.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4

The rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. While corruption and political pressure remain within law enforcement agencies, the office of the public prosecutor has become more independent in recent years.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4

The Czech Republic is free from war in insurgencies. However, prisons are overcrowded and at times unsanitary.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4

The 2009 Antidiscrimination Act provides for equal treatment regardless of sex, race, age, disability, belief, or sexual orientation. The Romany minority faces discrimination in the job market and significantly poorer housing conditions than non-Roma, as well as occasional threats and violence from right-wing groups. Many Roma children attend ethnically segregated schools.

Women are underrepresented at the highest levels of business. According to data from the European Commission, the gender pay gap in the Czech Republic is one of the largest in the EU.

Asylum seekers are routinely detained, and conditions in detention centers are generally poor. Xenophobic, antirefugee rhetoric has been voiced by Prime Minister Babiš and President Zeman. In 2017, after accepting just 12 asylum seekers of its EU-mandated quota of around 2,700, authorities announced the country would no longer comply with the program. According to Eurostat, the Czech Republic was the least likely country in the EU to grant asylum in 2018, offering protection to just 1 in 10 applicants. No refugees were resettled in the country during the year.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4

The rights to own property and operate private businesses are established in the law and upheld in practice.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4

Authorities generally do not restrict social freedoms, though same-sex marriages are not legally recognized. While gender discrimination is legally prohibited, sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be fairly common.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

Human trafficking remains a problem as organized criminal groups use the country as a source, transit, and destination point; women and children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The government has made increasing efforts in recent years to fund protective services and other resources for victims, and to prosecute perpetrators.