Written by Masha Volynsky
The obvious focus of the last two weeks in the Czech Republic have been the regional elections as well as the Senate by-elections. The surprisingly one-sided results sent the governing coalition and the opposition into a frenzy of finger-pointing and congratulatory hand-shaking along with quite a bit of self-reflection.
Although pre-election polls suggested the public is rapidly loosing confidence in the government , central as well as local, the people were not so disillusioned to not vote at all. In fact, with 40.3 percent participation, Czechs chose the opposition Social Deomcrats (ČSSD) to lead local governments in all 13 regions. Although the margin between top two was not so large in some regions, this was a huge blow to Civic Democrats (ODS). This marked a tremendous turnaround, especially given that before the elections all the regions had ODS majorities in government, save for South Moravia, where the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) were in control.
The two rounds of the senatorial elections in 27 districts around the country did not bring the coalition leaders, ODS, any relief. This past Saturday ČSSD took all but four districts, winning 23 seats in the Senate. The ODS, who had the 41-seat majority, are now down to 35, having defended only three seats, while the Social Democrats are now enjoying a threatening position with 29 seats.
STANDING UP AGAINST REFORM. Last week, while waiting for the second round of Senate elections and recovering from the regional verdict, the Civic Democrats had time for some soul-searching, or maybe just to throw the blame around. Petr Bendl found a favorite target - Health Minister Tomáš Julínek. He blamed his colleague for mismanaging "a number of steps", mainly the introduction of medical fees as one of the first phases of the healthcare reforms earlier this year.
Bendl had good reason to point out the effect medical fees may have had on the outcome of the elections, particularly given the fact that it was one of the main campaign points for ČSSD. Right before the elections, even a Christian Democrat MP Ludvík Hovorka joined the call for the public to "not let the politicians limit the healthcare" they have a right to.
A SPY STORY GONE BLURRY. The discovery that made just as many international headlines as Czech ones in the past two weeks was a police report claiming that the world-famous Czech-born writer Milan Kundera ratted out a Western spy to the police in 1950. The evidence was uncovered by a historian at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague and published by the weekly magazine Respekt. Kundera, breaking many years of media silence, vehemently denied these claims saying he knows nothing about the case.
One would like to agree with the author of The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, if it wasn't for the presence of the police report with his name and address recorded on it, and the fact that the woman who helped Miroslav Dvořáček, an émigré who came back as a Western spy, is convinced of it as well. You can read the interview with Iva Militká-Dlasková about what she knows and thinks about Kundera's involvement and judge for yourself.
Kundera, who lives in France, remained firm in his position, and demanded Respekt to apologize for calling him a police informant. The request was sent to the magazine's owner, coal magnate Zdeněk Bakala, which may have been a mistake since his personal involvement in the case may cross the boundaries of editorial freedom.
STAYING ON TOP. During the early stages of the current financial crisis, the Czech Finance Ministry announced its confidence in local resilience and said that they are not preparing any rescue packages for the Czech financial sector, unlike many other European governments.
Nonetheless, on 14 October the cabinet approved a proposal under which the government would guarantee 100 percent of bank account savings up to EUR 50,000 (approx. CZK 1.24 million). Finance Minister Kalousek remained confident about the healthy state of Czech banks, and the Banking Association said that "increasing the guarantees for deposits is a measure with primarily psychological effects on the clients". Let's hope it works.
Czech banks are still visibly tightening their belts when it comes to mortgages. The regional development minister expects the total value of mortgage contracts signed this year will be CZK 20-30 billion lower than last year. But analysts say this may not be a direct result of the financial crisis. Caution is in order, though. It is now almost impossible to find loans worth 100 percent of the property purchase value.
WHAT CRISIS?! Putting in his own two cents, President Vaclav Klaus said that the global financial crisis did not result from insufficient market regulation, but, on the contrary, from excessive government interventions and increasing public spending. It's just how things are supposed to go, basically, assured economist Klaus. "After years of growth there must necessarily be a decrease at some point," the president wrote in a letter published in the daily Mladá fronta Dnes last week.
EXTREMIST GROUPS AIM AT ROMA NEIGHBORHOOD. The north Bohemian town of Litvínov is seemingly becoming a battleground for far-right groups and the local Romani community. Last week the police prevented another clash between 300 supporters of the far-right non-parliamentary groups Národní odpor (National Resistance) and Dělnická strana (Workers' Party) and Roma residents from the Janov neighborhood. Earlier this month, the Worker's Party already rattled the neighborhood's nerves with a demonstrations of its "guards" of the so-called self-defense corps, who allegedly came to answer the call of local citizens who claimed to have been harassed by "inadaptable neighbours".
ARCHITECT REJECTS RECOGNITION. The outspoken and controversial architect Jan Kaplický made a point of turning down an award that the Culture Ministry wanted to give to him and other artists last week. The ministry, along with some of the most prominent members of the government, are making it impossible for him to realize his "blob" design for a new National Library in Prague, and Kaplický doesn't want to be hushed up. The CZK 300,000 prizes were awarded last Tuesday to individuals who made extraordinary contributions to Czech arts. Kaplický wants to be allowed to actually make his contribution first, before being recognized for it.
COMING UP NEXT... And to quickly go back to the political situation in the country and say a bit of what may lie ahead for next week. As the opposition was picking new partners last week, the ruling ODS found themselves on shaky ground. And this may become the theme of the upcoming weeks in Czech politics. ČSSD leader Jiří Paroubek tried last week to unseat the current government, and he's likely to try again. Though it was the coalition that was put to a no-confidence vote, it seemed more of a test for Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek personally. Although the ODS leader rightfully pointed out that this was the fourth no-confidence vote the coalition has weathered, and that it will stay its course, by the end of the week discontented voices were heard from within his party as well as without. In response to growing criticism Topolánek decided first to reshuffle his cabinet in order to improve decisions and bring friends closer, but enemies even closer. The second, and final, round of the Senate by-elections this past weekend, though, made it clear that bigger changes will be necessary. After hearing sharp criticism from top-brass ODS officials like Senate speaker Sobotka, deputy chairman Bendl, the ever-popular Prague mayor Pavel Bém and even honorary party chairman President Vacláv Klaus, it became clear to PM Topolánek that there is a good chance he will not get reelected as party leader at the party conference in December. It's possible he won't even run, and let his opponents do battle for the top seat.