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Is Czech Democracy under attack?

A concerted effort by the ruling Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democrats (ODS), who cooperate under the so-called opposition agreement, to significantly amend the Constitution and pass a new electoral law have prompted some analysts to ask whether political pluralism in the Czech Republic is not being threatened. The planned constitutional amendments would significantly reduce the powers of the president, shifting the balance of power in favor of large political parties.

The president, for example, would be obliged to ask the chairman of the party that emerges victorious from the elections to form a government. Such a provision does not exist in any West European constitution. It would make the president a mere rubber-stamp of procedures prescribed by the constitution.

With the popularity of the communist party rising, the above mentioned constitutional change is dangerous. Should the Communist Party win an election, the president would have to appoint a communist to form a government. Until the time the parliament would pass a vote of no-confidence in a communist cabinet, the unreformed communist party would control all ministries and have access to all NATO secrets.

The proposed electoral law changes could also return the communists to power. The ODS and the CSSD still argue about the final version of the electoral bill. The objective of the proposals of both the ODS and the CSSD is to limit the influence of small parties. The more radical proposal of the ODS would in essence result in a two-party system. A party winning a mere 30% of popular vote would gain a majority of seats in the parliament’s lower chamber. The Communist Party could find itself in that position.

The ODS argues that such an electoral system would make it possible to create majority governments and, thus, end the current political deadlock. It is not clear, however, whether even democratic political parties are mature enough to be trusted that they will not abuse a one-party rule. Both the Klaus governments in the past and the current CSSD government have put their own people on the boards of important companies and politicized the civil service system.

Attempts by both the ODS and the CSSD to change the rules of the democratic game in their favor through the electoral law changes and the constitutional amendments are accompanied by the two parties’ efforts to gain more influence in public television. They have already managed to do so in Nova, the private television station with huge influence. Nova director Vladimir Zelezny is involved in a battle for the control of Nova with U.S. investors, who claim that Zelezny has defrauded them. The principal investor, American billionaire Ronald Lauder, has even filed a suit against the Czech Republic for failing to protect his investments in the Czech Republic. The U.S. and the Czech Republic have an agreement on the mutual protection of investments.

Zelezny seems to be winning the battle for the station, but could not really do so without support from the largest political parties. If those parties wanted to, they could initiate a parliamentary procedure that could ultimately lead to revoking Zelezny’s license to run Nova. The current Board for Radio and Television Broadcasting has refused to revoke Zelezny's license, but the parliament could elect a new board that could do so. It seems, however, that neither the ODS nor the CSSD are interested in harming Zelezny. Nova’s newscasts and discussion programs reflect that fact: they have recently been heavily slanted in favor of the two parties and the opposition agreement under which the two parties cooperate.

The parliament’s media committee has now passed a resolution critical of Czech TV’s decision to re-run a communist-era detective series. Although the decision to broadcast the communist propaganda’s masterpiece is indeed controversial, the parliamentary committee’s resolution is seen by many as a first step in an effort by the ODS and the CSSD to recall the Board for Czech Television. A new board could elect a new director who would be less independent of the two parties. Parliamentary media committee head Ivan Langer of the ODS has been accused of repeatedly trying to influence the programming of Czech TV and of sending Czech TV letters criticizing certain programs as “biased.” The law under which Czech Television functions as public television does not allow politicians this kind of interference.

Democracy in the Czech Republic is under pressure. The two largest parties quite obviously hope that they will be able to use their current joint majority to institute changes that will give them permanent advantages over other political subjects. It is a dangerous game that could play into the hands of political extremists.

Reuters - 6. 10. 1999