Nations in Transit

Czech Republic

Czech Republic

Nations in Transit 2012

2012 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2.18

Regime Classification

Consolidated Democracy

National Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2.75

Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1.25

Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1.75

Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2.50

Local Democratic Governance
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1.75

Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2.00

Corruption
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

3.25

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Capital: Prague
Population: 10.5 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$22,910

Source: The data above were provided by The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2012.

 

* 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.

Executive Summary: 

If 2010 was a year of excitement and cautious optimism after parliamentary elections gave the center-right coalition a mandate to implement long-delayed reforms and to fight corruption, then 2011 was a year of massive disappointment. A government that pledged to clean up politics itself succumbed to repeated scandals and infighting, alienating a wide swath of the population and overshadowing some real reforms.

National Democratic Governance. While the coalition passed long-needed reforms to the health care, pension, welfare, and tax systems—aimed partly at reducing the budget deficit—a vast range of scandals and internal bickering robbed the government of much of its initial popularity. That left many people disillusioned and convinced of the entrenchment of political patronage networks. Further evidence of political corruption and cronyism offset positive reforms during the year, leaving the Czech Republic’s national democratic governance rating unchanged at 2.75.

Electoral Process. No elections took place in 2010. The scandals that rocked Public Affairs (VV) again called into question the viability of new parties on the Czech political scene, and declining membership numbers at some of the big parties created greater pessimism about their ability to attract young, motivated individuals. With political parties facing a poor reputation among the general public and no progress made on political inclusion of the substantial Roma minority, the rating for electoral process remains at 1.25.

Civil Society. Longer-term inaction in certain areas of public life and the disillusionment triggered by the current government’s scandals have led to greater civic activism, with a series of new civic initiatives populated by those tired of corruption and the arrogance of power. That optimism, however, has to be tempered with the reality that far-right groups also increased their activity and even managed to attract many local citizens to the troubling anti-crime, anti-Roma demonstrations that spread through northern Bohemia in the summer and fall. The civil society rating therefore remains at 1.75.

Independent Media. Czech media are independent and diverse, with one of the strongest public broadcasting systems in the wider region. Despite some worries, the election of the new head of public television took place without apparent political interference. The press is less restricted and increasingly active in uncovering official wrongdoing after the passage of an amendment to a controversial law banning the publication of information gained from police wiretaps. The rating for independent media remains at 2.50.

Local Democratic Governance. While more control systems are needed to rid the local administration of clientelism and improve efficiency, local governments have continued to prove their worth and have found relative popularity among citizens. While local power brokers still have too much power, local politicians continue to push their interests on the national level. The Czech Republic’s rating for local democratic governance rating remains at 1.75.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The weakest link in the judicial system, the state attorney’s office, showed new commitment to pursuing even politically sensitive cases and improving its tainted reputation. The justice ministry also readied new changes to preserve the system’s long-term independence. Pending implementation of these changes, the country’s judicial framework and independence rating remains at 2.00.

Corruption. Accusations of corruption and financial malfeasance plagued the government in 2011, prompting the resignation of several government ministers. Notwithstanding these distractions, the administration successfully pushed through crucial anticorruption legislation, drafted with input from the nonprofit sector. Additional anticorruption measures were under discussion at the end of 2011, and are expected to pass in early 2012. Together with the efforts of civil society and the media, the fight against corruption finally seems to be making progress, but it is still too early to change the country’s corruption rating from 3.25.

Outlook for 2012. After wasting much of its first year in office, by the end of 2011 the ruling coalition seemed to have mustered enough unity to push through crucial reforms and seriously address the problem of corruption. Changes at Prague City Hall, the new willingness of the state attorney’s office to tackle politically sensitive cases, and further changes planned for early 2012 are all cause for optimism. However, the question remains whether such progress will be enough to counter opposition to painful reforms and bring the coalition parties success in regional and Senate elections, especially with the European Commission forecasting gross domestic product (GDP) growth of only 0.7 percent during the year. Large trade unions—including transportation workers—had already begun protesting these reforms in 2011.

National Democratic Governance: 

The institutions of governance in the Czech Republic are stable and democratic. No single party dominates the political scene, and regular rotations of power occur at national and local levels. Political parties generally agree on the nature and direction of democratic change, with one major exception—the largely unreformed Communist Party (KSČM), which has not served in a post-1989 national government and continues to attract those nostalgic for the old regime as well as those left behind during the economic transition. The KSČM holds 26 of the 200 seats in the powerful lower house of parliament, but the refusal of other political parties to include the Communists in ruling coalitions has greatly complicated the process of forming stable governments among the remaining, often conflicting parties.

There was reason to believe that this 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 anticorruption reforms previous administrations had been too weak to pursue. Unfortunately, the government’s reform efforts were soon overshadowed by a series of controversies affecting each of the ruling parties.

A total of six ministers resigned in 2011, most of them over accusations of corruption or dubious financial dealings in their past. In April, Transport Minister Vit Barta—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. Around the same time, two VV parliamentary deputies accused Barta of trying to buy their loyalty with large handouts of cash. VV subsequently expelled the two deputies, and after an investigation, the police recommended to the state prosecutor that Barta stand trial for bribery. He has explained the money as personal loans and denied wrongdoing.

The corrupt intersection of business and high-level political interests remained a key theme throughout 2011. The sudden resignation of Martin Roman, the head of state-controlled energy giant ČEZ, elicited damning commentary from one of the Czech Republic’s most respected politicians, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. Schwarzenberg accused Roman and ČEZ of having secretly financed various political parties for years.[1] Schwarzenberg did not provide any proof of his accusations, which many feel explain a long-observed synergy between ČEZ’s interests and state policy.

Many supporters of the new coalition were also disappointed to find that the departure of some of the old party bosses did not immediately elevate the level of political culture in the country. In September, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek famously slapped a demonstrator on his way to work in the ministry; on another occasion, the same minister was accused of vulgarly insulting a female minister at a cabinet meeting.[2]

This general climate of bickering and allegations of corruption contributed to a sharp dropoff in the government’s popularity to some of the lowest rates in the last 20 years. By November 2011, only 22 percent of those polled said they trusted the government (down from 33 percent a year earlier); the figure for parliament decreased from 25 percent to just 17. The same poll revealed only 6 percent of respondents to be satisfied with the political situation (down from 12 percent a year earlier) and 75 percent dissatisfied (up from 56 percent).[3] At the same time, people feel hopeless to compel any change: a mere 9 percent said they were satisfied with civic participation in government decision making.[4]

Low public support may threaten the tough—and, in some cases, impressive— reforms the government has been implementing to cut back the deficit. In November, the president signed into law a package of health care and welfare reform laws that will allow patients to choose paid, above-standard care and that will tighten the conditions for unemployment benefits, among other key changes. The lower house of parliament also passed major pension reform that introduced a second pillar into the current system, allowing people to redirect part of their pension payments from the state to private funds (pension reform will be partially financed through an increase in value-added tax rates). In both cases, the governing coalition had to use its healthy majority in the lower house to override vetoes from the left-dominated Senate.

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.[5] The legislative process is further complicated by deputies’ ability to make an unrestricted number of proposed amendments during the second reading of bills. This tradition often disorients parliamentarians and derails long-awaited legislation with calculated additions that have little to nothing to do with the debated bill. 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.

The position of the president is chiefly ceremonial yet retains some important powers, such as forming a government. In a rare show of agreement between the left and right, in December parliamentary deputies voted overwhelmingly to institute direct presidential elections. If the Senate agrees, which is expected, citizens will gain this right in time for the 2013 elections. President Vaclav Klaus, in office since 2003, has sought out candidates closely tied to his political philosophy when appointing new governors to the central bank and new justices to the Constitutional Court. Some analysts believe that the constitution creates an overlap of executive power between the government and the president, which has led to various interpretations of the powers of the president and the government, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Despite government criticism of his activities, President Klaus has espoused his personal views at various international forums and during official visits, clashing with the official government line on issues such as global warming, the introduction of the euro, and the Lisbon Treaty.

Electoral Process: 

Political organizations in the Czech Republic have no problems in registering or campaigning. Although shaky coalition governments have been the norm in recent years, the system itself is solidly multiparty, with a strong opposition and diversity at all levels of government. Despite the unprecedented, large governing majority, leading politicians continue to speak of changes to electoral legislation that would foster stronger, more stable governments and eliminate the past need to rely on rebels and outcasts from other parties to pass legislation. No such changes took place in 2011.

The Czech Republic uses a parliamentary system with two houses. Real political power resides in the Chamber of Deputies, the 200-seat lower house, with deputies elected by proportional vote on party ballots. The 81-seat Senate is elected on the basis of single-mandate districts. The Senate can return approved bills to the lower house, but the Chamber of Deputies can override the Senate by a simple majority.

The parliamentary elections of May 2010 served as a partial rejection of the current political elite in favor of new parties. Together, the country’s two biggest parties, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and ODS, lost 1.5 million votes from the last elections in 2006, even though they came out on top (ČSSD with 22.1 percent and ODS with 20.2 percent). Two parties, TOP 09 and VV, picked up most of those votes, vaulting into double digits in their first attempt to get into parliament and winning 16.7 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively. The Communists, at 11.3 percent, were the only other party to pass the 5 percent threshold, leaving the Greens (SZ) and the Christian Democrats (the Christian and Democratic Union–Czechoslovak People’s Party, KDU-ČSL), a long-time fixture on the political scene, out in the cold. Many voters even took the unusual step of using preferential votes for individual candidates on their parties’ lists, helping these candidates leapfrog past some political veterans that had placed high on their parties’ candidate lists. In the end, 114 out of the 200 seats in the lower chamber went to newcomers, with a record 44 seats going to female parliamentarians.

Political party membership remains very low and appears to be dropping even further. The KSČM is the largest party (around 60,000 members), followed by the KDU-ČSL (35,000), the ODS (30,505), the ČSSD (around 22,000), TOP 09 (5,000), and the SZ (2,000). According to the weekly Respekt, ODS lost 3,000 members in the year preceding December 2011, while hundreds left ČSSD. Declining membership also continued in KSČM and KDU-ČSL, whose ranks have traditionally been filled with members of the older generation. Even TOP 09, which did so well in the parliamentary elections, has seen no significant increase in party membership.[6] A recent 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.[7]

A low membership base has clear repercussions for the political elite. With relatively few members to choose from, parties often recycle the same personalities and reward loyalty rather than expertise. That said, the election results seemed to indicate a widespread desire for new blood and the parties managed to present some new faces to voters in time for the 2010 local elections, an optimistic development for the future, as was the success of the Mayors and Independents (STAN) movement that ran on the TOP 09 ticket.[8] Voters’ hunger for fresh faces on the political scene may also explain the significant attention devoted to Andrej Babiš, one of the richest Czech businessmen, who founded the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement in the fall of 2011. Despite Babiš’s own involvement in the opaque business and political environment of the 1990s, he laid the groundwork for an anticorruption platform and vowed to compete in the next elections.

Low party membership has also contributed to a phenomenon known as “whale-hunting” whereby wealthy businesspeople (so-called “godfathers,” usually in the regions) allegedly “buy” new party members in return for greater influence in parties’ regional or local structures. For many, Prime Minister Petr 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 confirmed that regional heavyweights would continue to pull the strings in the new government. Party financing continues to operate with little regulation. Prime Minister Nečas pledged to pass legislation targeting a wide range of nontransparent campaign and party funding practices, but this had not yet happened at year’s end.[9]

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 believe that placing Roma candidates on their lists may do them more harm than good among average voters. At a national conference in October, Romany representatives agreed to form a united organization to represent Roma interests in talks with government officials, a possible first step toward creating a Roma political party.

Civil Society: 

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have fully recovered from several scandals that tarnished their early post-communist existence. Most Czechs now see NGOs as influential organizations, helpful in solving social problems, and essential to a 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.

NGO experts generally view the legal framework as adequate in terms of easy registration and independent operation, though the inability to define precisely the term “nonprofit organization” and other gaps in Czech legislation have created problems related to NGO taxation and their activities.

The state is the largest funder of NGOs, providing extensive financial support through grants and coordinating nonprofit activities through the Council for NGOs. Lately, 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.[10] 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. The nonprofit community lost one of its bigger supporters in December 2011 with the death of former President Vaclav Havel, who championed the role of civil society throughout his political career and right up until he passed away.

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 donations of this kind. According to the USAID NGO Sustainability Index 2010, the majority of NGOs still find themselves in poor financial shape, exacerbated by the impact of the financial crisis on would-be sponsors (state and non-state alike). Toward the end of 2011, a number of NGOs launched a campaign to preserve the flow of funds from taxes on gambling to the nonprofit sector. Their initiative was meant to counter a proposal in the Senate to divide up these funds between municipalities and sports organizations, leaving the nonprofit sector to fend for itself. The Senate’s proposal ultimately passed, though the finance minister pledged to release separate funds to help NGOs.

Grassroots initiatives have become more common in the Czech Republic, counting some achievements in 2011. One of the most prominent examples was the successful campaign to pressure Education Minister Josef Dobeš into replacing one of his subordinates, Ladislav Batora. Batora, who had once campaigned for the xenophobic National Party, had continued to actively participate in far-right oriented events and pronounce what many considered extremist, racist opinions.

Disillusionment with the current government appears to be leading to greater civic activism in the arena of anticorruption, as well. Joining the nonprofit sector, academics, artists, and more businessmen are now getting involved, including the founders of the new Anticorruption Endowment (NFPK) launched in March 2011 to support whistleblowers and others fighting for greater transparency. NFPK also launched its own investigations into certain instances of suspected corruption and turned up evidence that the Prague Public Transportation Company had paid inflated prices for the printing of metro tickets. Websites encouraging citizens to find out more about their public representatives and send them messages also sprouted up in 2011.[11]

Unfortunately, far-right extremist organizations have also increased their presence in society in recent years, forming alliances with established political parties such as the far-right Workers’ Party (DS).[12] In February 2010, using abundant evidence of DS ties to neo-Nazi groups and representative of a new toughness against extremist groups, the interior ministry succeeded where others had previously failed[13] in convincing the Supreme Administrative Court to outlaw the DS party. “This ruling needs to be understood as a preventive one, to maintain the constitutional and democratic order in the future,” Judge Vojtěch Šimiček said at the time, issuing the first ban on a Czech political party since the country gained independence in 1993.[14] Czech law permits a banned party to re-register under a new name, however, which former DS members did almost immediately.

The newly reconstituted Workers’ Party of Social Justice (DSSS) played a major role in the large scale ethnic unrest that wracked the northern part of the 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.[15] Sparked by brutal attacks by groups of young Roma in the towns of Rumburk and Novy Bor and rising crime in some of the poor regions of northern Bohemia, anti-Roma demonstrations and marches on areas populated by Roma took place on a weekly basis during this period.[16] In contrast to previous incidents, which were mainly attended by extremists, thousands of local townspeople also participated in the 2011 demonstrations, accusing the Roma of living off social handouts and not attempting to work.[17] The government ordered more police troops to the region, and the situation escaped further escalation. Amid the unrest, the government in September adopted an official “Strategy for Fighting Social Exclusion,” with over 100 measures aimed at improving the situation in the areas of education, employment, housing, and security. The plan, which calls for spending up to 15 billion crowns (US$773 million) in the next four years, will attempt to both remedy the conditions in the ghettos and prevent ghettos from forming.[18]

Independent Media: 

Press freedom has long been secure in the Czech Republic, and no major media are state owned. The “serious” press has now matured to a point where it offers more balanced political coverage and opinions; publications may favor one side of the political spectrum, but they are generally not viewed as political propaganda favoring one party or another. However, some analysts have noted that the last few elections have prompted a relapse, with the press returning to the political polarization of the 1990s both before and after the May 2010 elections.[19]

The national print media offer a diverse selection of daily newspapers, weeklies, and magazines, but the economic crisis has placed greater pressure on many, increasing the threat that they will shy away from critical coverage of major advertisers and—some argue—accelerating the tabloidization of the serious press. For the first time in the Czech market, in 2011 the combined circulation of tabloid daily newspapers surpassed that of the news-oriented dailies, continuing a long-term trend.[20] 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 under its wing—in its traditional, dominant position.[21] While some of the main dailies may have added tabloid-like elements, they have 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. Such efforts will be 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 law, which took effect in April 2009, had prompted a rare show of unity among media outlets and sharp criticism from international journalism rights groups. The 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.[22]

With improved news and current affairs coverage over the past few years, the public television and radio stations, Czech TV and Czech Radio, have also contributed to the country’s high rankings in press freedom indexes (25th in the world, in Freedom House’s 2012 Press Freedom index). 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 that should make it the envy of virtually any other public broadcaster in the post-communist region. Such programs do not have much competition among private media, where investigative and discussion programs have largely disappeared from television screens, ostensibly because of financial reasons.

The Chamber of Deputies appoints the supervisory boards of Czech TV and Czech Radio, and politically compromised members are thought to sit on both boards even though these institutions are meant to be apolitical. The governing coalition has pledged to pass a new law changing the system for electing the members of the TV board and generally reducing the potential influence of politicians on public TV, especially on the news.[23] Although that did not happen in 2011, the highly anticipated election of a new director at Czech TV came off without accusations of political influence. While reports surfaced in December of the station’s reporters complaining that some politically sensitive stories had been edited or killed outright, the charges may simply have been the result of the introduction of new standards. The station’s new director, Petr Dvořak, responded that the stories had not been of inadequate quality.[24]

It will be important to see how Czech TV deals with the loss of a large portion of advertising revenue. 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—will remain at 0.5 percent of daily broadcasting time.[25] To compensate for some small portion of lost advertising revenues, 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. In the run up to digital broadcasting during the mid-2000s, big, private stations successfully lobbied to postpone the digital shift over and were ultimately awarded more stations of their own. So far, hopes that digital broadcasting would help to diversify the playing field have not been fulfilled, as financial pressures have killed off some stations and derailed the plans for new ones.

Toward the end of the year, Czech TV was criticized by some human rights activists for using the term “unadaptables” in reference to people (often Roma) living in remote areas of the country. The legal department of Czech TV disputed the notion that use of the term contributed to stigmatizing the Romany people as a whole. According to the acting director of the department: “Gypsies work at Czech Television. One of them is even a news anchor.”[26] This is not the first time Czech TV has used derogatory language in reference to the Roma.

Local Democratic Governance: 

Though slow in coming, the development of local government structures and authority has become one of the Czech Republic’s 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 have made considerable progress in tackling problems neglected by the central government, such as education. Overall, the success in regional management and greater autonomy has made a strong case for allowing regional governments to manage a larger share of the tax money they help to collect. As a November 2011 poll by the Center for Public Opinion showed, Czech citizens trust their local (56 percent) and regional representatives (38 percent) far more than the lower house of parliament (17 percent) or the Senate (23 percent),[27] though these figures have dropped over the past few years.

In most matters, however, 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 far less money per capita than big cities. In 2011, regional hejtmen (governors) even went so far as to sue the central government for not fulfilling its promises to finance regional transportation, including the railroads. Until recently, the tax redistribution figure was six times more for large cities than smaller municipalities but pressure from local representatives led to changes that dropped the figure to 4.5 times.[28]

Even with these obstacles, the influence of local officials has increased dramatically from the early years of the country’s independence, in both good and bad ways. During the past election, the STAN movement ran on the TOP 09 ticket and picked up eight parliamentary seats, putting it in a strong position to push local interests on the national level, including the tax redistribution cause (STAN and TOP 09 have prepared a proposal to reduce the figure even further, to only three times per capita for the big cities). On the negative side, local “bosses” still control regional party cells, which, in turn, choose candidates for parliament and the Senate, and elect party chairmen. Therefore, although the 2010 national elections did result in the removal of some compromised politicians and the weakening of the biggest political parties, some observers believe that only a similar revolution on the local level—diminishing the power of the local clans—can lead to real change.

Early indications following the 2010 local elections were not promising in this regard, especially in some of the country’s largest cities. In Prague, Brno, Ostrava, and Plzen, the greatest rivals, ODS and ČSSD, formed grand coalitions that, in some cases, allowed compromised politicians to stay in power. Some of those aspiring for change either were not able to achieve leadership positions or lasted for only a short period of time in high office.[29] However, the situation dramatically changed in late 2011. Unexpectedly and quickly, the ODS and ČSSD coalition in Prague collapsed, replaced by an ODS-TOP 09 partnership that managed to sideline or fire key politicians with dubious pasts and suspicious connections to influential businessmen. The mayor Bohuslav Svoboda kept his post throughout the change, encouraging many that believed he had made significant inroads in cleaning up city hall since taking office. Some commentators speculated that the changes in Prague could have reverberations in the regions, having demonstrated that the privileges enjoyed by entrenched business interests could change virtually overnight. Only time will tell whether TOP 09, which has its own links to business interests, made these changes to city administration out of a genuine commitment to reform and increased efficiency.

Greater transparency and corruption-fighting instruments at the national level have not kept up with the transfer of responsibilities and finances to local governments, and endemic cronyism remains a critical problem. Experts believe that most corruption now takes place at the local level, since the economy has been privatized and wrongdoing is more visible on the national stage. The lack of oversight on such dealings is a major part of the problem, as the Supreme Audit Office (NKU) 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 NKU’s authority to oversight of regional and local governments, a big step forward if approved by parliament.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

The Czech Republic’s four-tiered judicial system consists of district courts (86), regional courts (8), high courts (2), and the Supreme Court. The Czech Constitutional Court is a well-respected institution that may be addressed directly by citizens who believe their fundamental rights have been violated. Although the Czech judiciary is constitutionally independent, the justice minister appoints and dismisses the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the courts. The Czech Republic is the only European country where the executive has such a large influence over the personnel composition of the state attorney’s office: the government names the highest state attorney on the recommendation of the justice minister, while the justice minister, on the recommendation of the highest state attorney, appoints state attorneys. Adding to the dependence of the state attorneys on the executive, the justice minister can also initiate disciplinary proceedings against them.

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), as well as the heads of the Supreme Court and Supreme Administrative Court. The president can submit direct complaints against particular high court judges, including the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the Supreme Court and Supreme Administrative Court. Relations between President Klaus and the Constitutional Court have been frosty over the years, highlighted by the court’s final 2009 ruling on the constitutionality of the Lisbon Treaty, which Klaus had challenged. The court also ruled against Klaus when he tried in 2006 to dismiss the chairwoman of the Supreme Court.

Historically, the most problematic part of the judicial system has been the state attorney’s office, which was considered highly susceptible to political influence. In 2007, a deputy chairman of the Supreme Court, the chief state attorney, and a former justice minister attempted to get a corruption case against Deputy Prime Minister Jiři Čunek shelved for fear that an indictment could shatter the then-ruling coalition. That case was only one of many corruption cases that led Transparency International’s Czech branch (TIC)—in a groundbreaking study of the country’s National Integrity System”—to evaluate the state attorney’s office as the weakest pillar among the country’s institutions entrusted with limiting corruption. The report, which came out in December 2011, called the office a “black hole that absorbed information about serious cases of corruption without emitting any of its own,” and accused it of succumbing easily to political influence and even slowing down the investigation of some cases.[30]

A new head of the state attorney’s office, Pavel Zeman, took office at the beginning of 2011 and appeared intent on pursuing a number of politically sensitive corruption cases that his predecessor, Renata Vesecka, had failed to investigate. Zeman also re-installed independent-minded attorneys Vesecka had removed. Zeman’s efforts met with strong opposition from some parts of the political spectrum when he removed the lead prosecutor from office, though that very prosecutor had received repeated criticism for not acting in politically sensitive cases.

More changes are evidently on the way. The ruling coalition agreed in November on radical changes to the law on the state attorney’s office, which would dissolve the high state attorney’s office in Prague and Olomouc and replace them with a special team of prosecutors that will deal with the biggest corruption and criminal cases. Justice Minister Jiři Pospišil said the move would provide greater independence for the prosecutors, offering them clearly defined powers and protection from possible political interference.[31] The ministry hopes to get the changes into law in the first half of 2012 so that they can take effect in 2013.

The Czech Republic is the only EU country without functioning civil service legislation. The Law on the Civil Service was approved in 2002, in the lead-up to the country’s entry into the EU, but has never taken effect; its starting date has been repeatedly delayed owing to political disputes. The Interior Ministry is reportedly working on a completely new civil service law in connection with its anticorruption strategy.

On the positive side, in November 2011, the lower house passed a sweeping, new civil code to replace a version that dated back to 1964 and had been amended 40 times since 1989. When the code takes effect in 2014, it will make fundamental changes in such areas as family and ownership law. However, gay rights’ activists complained that the new code still did not allow same-sex partners to apply for child adoption or joint foster care, or permit registered, same-sex couples to jointly hold property.[32]

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. The share of seats in parliament after the June elections rose from 16 to 22 percent, but the government itself ended up with zero female ministers (in 2011 Karolina Peake from VV became deputy prime minister for the fight against corruption).[33]

Discrimination against the Roma in employment and housing also presents a serious problem. A 2006 government report estimated that 80,000 Roma—roughly a third of the country’s Roma population—live in ghettos, with between 95 and 100 percent unemployment.[34] In a landmark decision in November 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (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).[35] However, in a November 2010 complaint filed at the Council of Europe, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the European Roma Rights Centre, and the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) argued that the Czech Republic “has taken no concrete steps to desegregate schools,” producing an under-funded and vague action plan that has not led to improvement. The organizations asserted that Roma children are still 12 times more likely than non-Roma to be enrolled in special schools for children with mental disabilities (and in some parts of the country the figure is 27 times).[36] 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.[37]

In 2011 parliament approved an amendment allowing municipalities to ban residence on their territory to people who in the past had committed misdemeanors without paying the required fine. Critics said the move restricted freedom of movement and was directed against socially excluded people.[38] Some villages have also taken to passing ordinances to restrict the use of public spaces, ostensibly to keep public order but likely directed at preventing homeless people and Roma to spend time on the streets.

Corruption: 

While most in the Czech Republic can live their daily lives without engaging in corrupt behavior, complaints do arise over the need to bribe or “give gifts” to expedite services from the public administration. Although few people encounter corruption directly, the perception of illegal activity, especially concerning the political elite, is widespread. Many have viewed existing anticorruption measures as insufficient to dismantle the intricate web of connections between political and business elites.

Transparency International released the country’s first National Integrity Study in December 2011, analyzing the ability of state institutions to address corruption. The report’s key findings indicate that the weakest pillars in the system are the state attorney’s office and the state administration, followed by the police. In general, excessive politicization had led to unwillingness across the system to actively move against corruption cases with a political subtext. The best-evaluated pillars were the ombudsman’s office and the NKU.[39] To improve the overall situation, TIC has recommended a list of main priorities for the authorities: increased transparency for political party financing, the acceptance of rules for the appointment of state officials and the de-politicization of public administration; increased independence of the courts and state attorney’s office; and more effective monitoring of business entities controlled by the state and local governments.[40] The annual report of the domestic secret services (BIS) also called attention to corruption in the judiciary, reporting bribery in return for confidential information, manipulated court cases, and the sweeping of various crimes under the carpet.[41] In October 2011, two judges were accused of accepting bribes, abuse of office, and manipulating certain cases.

The new government came to power with the fight against corruption as one of its main tenets. The coalition finally started to deliver on these promises in 2011, though ironically it did so against a backdrop of its own scandals that saw the resignation of several cabinet members, overshadowing many of its accomplishments in the public’s eyes. According to the anticorruption group Oživeni (Revival) the most significant change initiated in 2011 was the lower house’s passage of an amendment to the law on public tenders, which would lower the amount threshold beyond which public contracts must be opened to a bidding process (until now those levels had been among the highest in Europe). At year’s end, the Senate was debating the proposal, which was praised by numerous nongovernmental, governmental, and business groupings. While some critics were disappointed that the bill did not contain provisions that would force bidders for public contracts to disclose their ownership structure, the government pledged to address that issue separately.

A number of additional anticorruption initiatives were either passed or prepared in 2011. The Justice Ministry has already presented to parliament a bill restricting anonymous ownership of joint-stock companies in a bid for greater transparency, which is expected to be debated in early 2012. New legislation introducing criminal liability for companies as of 2012 should also be a powerful instrument for fighting economic crime and corruption. At year’s end, the government and individual ministries were in the process of preparing new laws or amending existing ones dealing with political party financing, freedom of information, lobbying, the state attorney’s office, civil service, and the press (to counter the misuse of local periodicals by political parties).[42]

Lack of transparency in major business deals involving the state remains a serious problem at both national and local levels. NKU has uncovered massive irregularities and overspending on various government contracts, but politicians generally ignore its findings, the same fate that also often befalls rulings by the respected ombudsman’s office. Current law does not allow the NKU to impose sanctions. Long-running court cases against the NKU’s head, František Dohnal, over financial mismanagement of the organization itself and his state-financed rental of a luxury flat have also damaged the agency’s reputation. Though Dohnal was later cleared of wronging with the flat, 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 NKU’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.

Journalists often do not invoke their rights under the Law on Freedom of Information, and officials still sometimes refuse to provide the requested information or ask for unreasonably high administrative fees. The Supreme Administrative Court ruled in May that information about the salaries and bonuses of state officials should be public.

Though 2011 saw the conviction of a number of local officials and politicians, many still complained about the failure to prosecute any “big fish.” At year’s end, Czech corruption fighters got their wish when police charged former defense minister Martin Bartak with attempting to elicit a bribe to smooth over a troubled deal to supply the military with Tatra trucks.

Notes: 

[1] Erik Tabery, “Duhova energie politickym stranam” [Rainbow energy to political parties], Respekt, 2 October 2011.

[2] Lucie Kavanova, “Chlapi Karoliny Peake” [Karolina Peake’s Guys], Respekt, 9 October 2011.

[3] Public Opinion Research Centre of the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic (CVVM), Důvěra ustavnim institucim a spokojenost s politickou situaci v listopadu 2011 [Trust in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation in November 2011] (Prague: CVVM, 28 November 2011).

[4] CVVM, Spokojenost se stavem v oblastech veřejneho života [Satisfaction with the situation in areas of public life] (Prague: CVVM, 7 July 2011).

[5] Marek Švehla, “Vice než imunitu” [More than immunity], Respekt, 13 June 2010.

[6] Tomaš Sacher, “Prohnili a sami” [Rotten and Alone], Respekt, 27 November 2011.

[7] Paulina Tabery, Miněni veřejnosti o korupci mezi veřejnymi představiteli a v jednotlivych oblastech [Public opinion about corruption among public representatives in individual areas] (Prague: CVVM, 13 May 2011).

[8] With local interests in mind, STAN has pushed successfully to restrict gambling, better redistribute taxes between the large cities and smaller municipalities, and to increase transparency in public tenders. See Hana Čapova, “Pohadka o karieře” [Fairytale career], Respekt, 11 December 2011.

[9] Erik Tabery, “Duhova energie politickym stranam.”

[10] Adam Šůra, “Dobro za všechny penize” [The good for all that money], Respekt, March 2010.

[11] Silvie Lauder, “Budeme jako Gandhi” [We will be like Gandhi], Respekt, 5 June 2011.

[12] Kateřina Čopjakova, “Proč jsou tak uspěšni” [The secret of their success], Respekt, 26 April 2009. English translation by Victor Gomez, Transitions Online, 20 May 2009, http://www.tol.org/client/article/20591-the-secret-of-their-success.html.

[13] The embattled government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek made a half-hearted attempt to ban the Worker’s Party (DS) in March 2009. The government’s case, overseen by controversial Interior Minister Ivan Langer, was only a few pages long, in contrast with the 70-page proposal (plus 85 addenda) submitted by Langer’s successor.

[14] Dan Bilefsky, “Czech Court Bans Far-Right Party, Calling It Xenophobic and a Threat to Democracy,” The New York Times, 19 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/world/europe/19prague.html.

[15] “Racial tensions rise in Czech Republic after Roma attacks on whites,” Deutsche-Welle, 24 August 2011, http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15340203,00.html%3b%20http://praguemonito... and Cat Contiguglia, “Unrest in north Bohemia amid clashes with Roma,” The Prague Post, 31 August 2011, http://www.praguepost.com/news/10049-unrest-in-north-bohemia-amid-clashe....

[16] Cat Contiguglia,“Unrest in north Bohemia amid clashes with Roma.”

[17] Benjamin Cunningham, “Racial tensions rooted in real estate profiteers,” The Prague Post, 14 September 2011.

[18] “Cabinet Adopts Strategy on Fighting Romany Exclusion,” RadioCZ, 22 September 2011, http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/cabinet-adopts-strategy-on-figh....

[19] Jiři Pehe, Šefredaktoři deniků v roli propagandistů” [Editors-in-chief in the role of government propagandists], 28 May 2010, http://www.pehe.cz/zapisnik/sefredaktorideniku-v-roli-propgandistu.

[20] “Bulvar se poprve dostal nad zpravodajske deniky,” [For the first time, tabloids surpass news dailies], Mediaguru.cz, 15 November 2011.

[21i] Martina Vojtěchovska, “Proč krachuji tituly v regionech?” [Why are publications in the regions going bankrupt?], Mediaguru.cz, 27 June 2011.

[22] 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_Free....

[23] Jan Kubita and Jindřich Šidlo, “20 kroků, jak změnit Česko k lepšimu” [20 Steps: How to change the Czech Republic for the better], Hospodařske noviny, 16 November 2010.

[24] Tomaš Syrovatka, “V ČT roste napěti, redaktoři si stěžuji na zastaveni citlivych kauz” [At CTV tensions grow, editors complain about the stopping of sensitive cases], Mlada fronta DNES, 13 December 2011.

[25] European Audiovisual Observatory, “TV Market in Czech Republic,” September 2011, http://mavise.obs.coe.int/country?id=9.

[26] František Kostlan, “Czech TV response to critique of the term ‘unadaptables’: ‘Gypsies work at Czech Television,’” Romea.cz, 30 November 2011, http://www.romea.cz/english/index.php?id=detail&detail=2007_2990.

[27] Daniel Kunštat, Důvěra ustavnim institucim a spokojenost s politickou situaci v listopadu 2011 [Trust in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation in November 2008] (Prague: Center for Research of Public Opinion, 28 November 2011).

[28] Josef Kopecky, “Gazdikovi starostove piši Nečasovi: Dodržte svůj slib o rozděleni dani” [Gazdik’s mayors write to Nečas: Keep your promise about the allocation of taxes,” iDNES.cz, 17 September 2011.

[29] Silvie Lauder, “Budeme jako Gandhi.”

[30] Robert Břešťan, “Unikatni studie: Zkouška z dospělosti dopada pro Česko bidně” [Unique study: Test for maturity ends up miserably for Czech Republic], Ekonom, 7 December 2011, http://ekonom.ihned.cz/c1-54028500-unikatni-studie-zkouska-z-dospelosti-....

[31] Čeněk Třeček and Anna Brandejska, “Vrchni statni zastupitelstvi konči, nahradi je specialni tym žalobců,” [High state attorney’s office will close down, replaced by a special team of prosecutors], iDNES.cz, 23 November 2011.

[32] “Czech homosexuals want civil code to allow their child adoption,” Czech News Agency, 14 November 2011.

[33] Marek Švehla, “Česka monokultura[Czech monoculture], Respekt, 11 July 2010.

[34] Gabal Analysis and Consulting (GAC), Analyza socialně vyloučenych romskych lokalit a absorpčni kapacity subjektů působicich v teto oblasti [Analysis of socially excluded Roma localities and the absorption capacity of entities working in this area] (Prague: GAC, 2006), http://www.gac.cz/userfiles/File/nase_prace_vystupy/GAC_MAPA_analyza_SVL....

[35] Open Society Justice Initiative, “Major Conclusions from the D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic’s Judgment,” press release, 14 November 2007, http://www.soros.org/initiatives/justice/focus/equality_citizenship/news....

[36] European Roma Rights Centre, “Czech Government Flouts Court Ruling on Roma Education,” press release, 10 November 2010, http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=3789.

[37] Czech Statistical Office, “Preliminary results of the 2011 Population and Housing Census,” 15 December 2011, http://www.czso.cz/sldb2011/eng/redakce.nsf/i/preliminary_results_of_the....

[38] “Zakaz pobytu v obcich” [Ban on residence in municipalities], Respekt, 3 October 2011.

[39] Transparency International Česka Republika, “Tiskova zprava k vydani Studie narodni integrity” [Press statement on the publication of the Study of National Integrity], 8 December 2011, http://www.transparency.cz/tiskova-zprava-k-vydani-studie-narodni-integr....

[40] “Na celosvětovem žebřičku CPI—Index vnimani korupce 2011 se Česka republika děli o 57–59.misto s Namibii a Saudskou Arabii,” [On the international CPI ladder—Index of perceived corruption 2011, Czech Republic is tied for 57–59th place with Namibia and Saudi Arabia], Transparency International Česka Republika, 1 December 2011.

[41] Jaroslav Spurny and Ondřej Kundra, “Soudci v hledačku BIS” [Judges in the BIS spotlight], Respekt, 14 October 2011, http://respekt.ihned.cz/c1-53146200-soudci-v-hledacku-bis.

[42] Oživeni, Zprava o boji proti korupci v ČR za rok 2011 [Report on corruption in the Czech Republic for 2011] (Prague: Oživeni, 8 December 2011), http://www.bezkorupce.cz/2011/12/zprava-o-boji-proti-korupci-v-cr-za-rok....