Freedom in the World
In March 2011, the Constitutional Court struck down as unconstitutional austerity measures that the ruling coalition had pushed through Parliament via a legislative state of emergency in November 2010. The lower house of Parliament approved healthcare and welfare reforms in June and major pension reforms in September, despite opposition from the Senate, President Václav Klaus, and the general public. Meanwhile, the government continued to face criticism for failing to adequately address the unfair treatment of Roma children in the education system.
Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 amid the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soviet forces helped establish a communist government after World War II, and in 1968 they crushed the so-called Prague Spring, a period of halting political liberalization under reformist leader Alexander Dubček.
In December 1989, a series of peaceful anticommunist demonstrations led by dissident Václav Havel and the Civic Forum opposition group resulted in the resignation of the government, in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. Open elections were held the following year. In 1992, a new constitution and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms were adopted, and the country began an ambitious program of political and economic reform under Václav Klaus of the center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who became prime minister that year. In 1993, the state dissolved peacefully into separate Czech and Slovak republics.
Close parliamentary elections in 1998 brought the center-left Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) to power, though an “opposition agreement” between the CSSD and the ODS limited meaningful political competition and brought about several years of political gridlock. Klaus was elected president by Parliament in 2003. The Czech Republic joined the European Union (EU) in May 2004.
The 2006 lower house elections produced a chamber that was evenly divided between left- and right-leaning parties, leading to a series of short-lived, ODS-led coalitions and caretaker governments. The caretaker government headed by independent Jan Fischer led the government until May 2010, when parliamentary elections resulted in 56 and 53 seats in the lower house for CSSD and ODS, respectively. The center-right, free-market Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09 (TOP 09) party placed third with 41 seats, followed by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) with 26 seats, and the right-leaning Public Affairs (VV) party with 24 seats. In June, Klaus appointed ODS leader Petr Nečas as prime minister, who formed a center-right coalition government with TOP 09 and VV.
In an effort to trim the budget deficit following a recession in 2009, the new government pledged to cut public-sector wages by 10 percent in 2011 and replace seniority-based raises with a system of personal bonuses. The unpopular move allowed the opposition to gain control in the October 2010 Senate elections, giving the CSSD, along with other opposition parties, the power to obstruct legislation passed by the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. In order to bypass the opposition, the lower house declared a legislative state of emergency at the end of October, allowing it to expedite the passage of several controversial austerity bills.
Throughout 2011, thousands of protestors demonstrated against the government’s austerity package. Many claimed that the nation’s financial problems were not the result of insufficient funds, but rather that public funds were being unfairly distributed. In April, the Constitutional Court rejected the government’s austerity package and declared the fast-tracked legislation procedures unconstitutional. After months of infighting and a veto by the CSSD-controlled Senate, the lower house pushed through healthcare and welfare reforms in June. In addition to altering pricing schemes, the bill divided healthcare into a two-tiered system, with basic care covered by public funds, and privately purchased so-called premium care. After a long battle against the opposition, the lower house passed major pension reforms in September that semi-privatize the system. The reforms were largely unpopular with the public.
The Czech Republic is an electoral democracy. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has 200 members 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 two main political parties are the center-left CSSD and the center-right ODS. Two other right-leaning parties, TOP 09 and VV, entered Parliament for the first time in 2010.
Corruption and lack of transparency remain core structural problems, and government reforms have been slow. The authorities have consistently failed to fully investigate and follow through on corruption accusations brought against politicians. The European Commission issued a harsh warning in 2011 concerning the transparency of public tenders, cautioning that the lack of transparency could lead to a reduction in EU funding. A Center for Empirical Studies (STEM) poll released in June 2011 suggests that corruption may be a deeper problem than previously thought, with 83 percent of Czechs believing that most civil servants can be bribed. Several government ministers, including the trade and industry minister, were forced to resign in 2011 over corruption allegations or past dubious business deals. In 2011, former police officer Radka Kadlecova, who was convicted in 2009 of accepting bribes from foreigners applying for residence permits, received a presidential pardon that was allegedly the result of a bribe paid to the administration. President Vaclav Klaus provided no official reason for the pardon, and at Kadlecova reportedly had boasted to a psychologist about purchasing the pardon. The allegations were still under investigation at year’s end.
Freedom of expression is respected, though the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms—included in the Czech constitution—prohibits threats against individual rights, state and public security, public health, and morality. Freedom of expression was called into question when armed military police officers in masks raided the offices of the public television station Czech Television on March 11, 2011, supposedly in search of a classified document that the military said had been shown on the air. The military police came under strong criticism, causing Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra to suspend General Vladimir Ložek, who had ordered the raid.
Most media outlets are owned by private foreign companies and are allegedly not influenced by the state. In June 2011, the Senate approved an amendment to the 2009 “muzzle law,” which bans the publication of information obtained through police wiretaps, but allows for an exception in the case of “public interest.” The validity of “public interest” claims must be examined by a judge on a case by case basis. Journalists had complained that the “Muzzle Law” prevented them from effectively reporting on corruption.
The government generally upholds freedom of religion. Academic freedom is widely respected.
Czechs may assemble peacefully, form associations, and petition the government. Thousands of protestors took to the streets in 2011 against the government’s austerity package over concerns that public funds were being unfairly distributed. Trade unions and professional associations function freely but are weak in practice. The 2007 labor code requires unions within a single enterprise to act in concert when conducting collective bargaining.
The independence of the judiciary is largely respected in practice. The rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters, though corruption reportedly is a problem within law enforcement agencies. Prisons suffer from overcrowding and poor sanitation.
The 2009 Antidiscrimination Act provides for equal treatment regardless of sex, race, age, or sexual orientation. However, members of the small Roma community sometimes face threats and violence from right-wing groups. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2007 that sending Roma children to special schools violated their rights to a full education. Although the government adopted a National Action Plan for Inclusive Education in March 2010 and a Strategy for the Fight Against Social Exclusion 2011-2015 in September 2011, the exclusion of Roma children from mainstream schools continues. In May 2011, parliament adopted amendments to two governmental decrees that introduced parental and/or pupil consent for placement in special schools or programs and some support mechanisms for socially disadvantaged pupils, claiming that these measures would lead to the implementation of the ECHR judgment. However, the amendments do not explicitly guarantee mainstream education for socially disadvantaged children, sidestepping the cornerstone of the ECHR ruling. In some regions, Roma children are 27 times more likely than other children to be wrongly placed in special schools for the mentally disabled. Promoting denial of the Holocaust and inciting religious hatred remain illegal.
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. Women nevertheless increased their parliamentary presence in the 2010 elections, capturing 44 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. Trafficking of women and girls for prostitution remains a problem. In April 2011, the government approved a new National Action Plan for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, which outlines steps for supporting victims and dealing with perpetrators.