Senate elections that could end up testing the ruling coalition's slim majority in the upper chamber have gotten underway: polls opened at two o'clock Friday. The first round of voting takes place this Friday and Saturday, with the second round scheduled for November 1st and 2nd. In all a third of the 81 senatorial seats are being decided in districts from around the country in what is a two-year rotating system. 168 candidates are taking part. So far polls have suggested that as much as fifty percent of eligible voters may cast their votes. The ruling coalition must secure 16 of 41 seats it currently holds if it hopes to maintain at least a one-vote majority in the Senate, but both the leading opposition Civic Democrats and the Communist party are seen as potentially difficult contenders.
The management of Spolana, a chemical factory north of Prague, has rejected the claim that highly toxic substances leaked into the environment when the plant was flooded last August. According to a report published by the Arnika environment group the floodwaters released an unspecified amount of highly toxic dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls into the river Elbe. Arnika said that water samples it took from the Elbe at the time were found to contain traces of these substances. Spolana acknowledged that these substances were stored at the plant, although their production was stopped many years ago, but said that they were encased in hermetically sealed, heat-resistant, waterproof containers and ruled out the possibility that they could have leaked. Arnika has asked the Czech Inspection Office to investigate the matter.
Earlier Mr Havel warned officials they were inviting trouble at November's NATO summit in Prague, by focusing more on security than the historic agenda of the meeting. Mr Havel wrote in a newspaper article that he understood precautions were needed at such high profile events, but questioned whether officials were going too far. The president said the huge emphasis on security during the summit - which will see an estimated 12,000 police officers patrolling the streets and NATO warplanes patrolling the skies - could provoke, rather than prevent violent protests.
Trade Minister Jiri Rusnok has said the second reactor at the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant should be fully operational by January. Mr Rusnok said repairs to the unit's generator were almost complete, and the reactor should be fully online within three months. Temelin was first launched in October 2000, to the anger of environmental groups in neighbouring Austria and Germany, who claimed it was unsafe. Temelin's first unit was plagued with technical problems, which appear to have been resolved.
The Czech farmer's union said on Wednesday that summer floods and lower commodity prices have combined to make this year the worst for Czech farmers since the fall of communism. In a letter to Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, union officials called for higher subsidies to rescue farmers from bankruptcy. They said an increase in government payments to around 80 dollars per hectare was needed to keep crop farmers and many of their suppliers in business long enough to plant next year's crop.
Foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from the ten countries hoping to become members of the European Union in 2004 have held talks in Prague, at the invitation of the Czech foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda. Mr Svoboda said while the ten EU candidates did have their own specific national interests, certain matters were important to all of them, including budgetary issues and agricultural policy. Pavel Telicka, the Czech Republic's chief negotiator on accession, has said in the past that Czech farmers would have to accept lower subsidies than those received in existing EU countries.
Czech top politicians have welcomed the outcome of Ireland's referendum on the Nice Treaty after the final count put the "yes" side ahead by nearly 63 percent. Saturday's vote was Ireland's second referendum on the European Union's Nice Treaty, which is deemed essential for admitting 10 applicant countries, including the Czech Republic, to the EU in 2004. Ireland voted on Saturday in a re-run of a referendum held last year when the treaty was defeated by 54 percent with only a third of the electorate voting.
Czech farmers are considering fierce protests such as street blockades and demonstrations against the demands of the European Union, the commercial TV station Nova reported on Saturday. Czech farmers listed their objections in a petition last Tuesday, demanding the government to face the problem. According to its authors, almost half of Czech farmers have already signed the petition. The protest rallies could be averted if farmers succeed in negotiating better terms for themselves at a meeting with EU commissioners and the Czech government on November 11th.
Polls opened on Saturday morning in Ireland as its 2.9 million voters decide whether to accept or reject the European Union Treaty of Nice, which enables enlargement of the bloc. This is Ireland's second referendum on the treaty and the outcome of the poll will be watched closely by the 10 countries, including the Czech Republic, hoping to join the EU in 2004, as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, who hope to join at a later stage. Ireland rejected the Nice Treaty in June 2001 by 54 percent in a referendum. Latest opinion polls show 42 per cent of the electorate intend to vote "yes" this time while 29 percent intend to vote "no". Ireland is the only EU member state to hold a referendum on the Treaty of Nice. National parliaments decided in the other 14 member states. The final result of the referendum is expected on Sunday evening.
The Czech Republic took a step towards letting its citizens decide on EU membership on Thursday, after the lower house of parliament approved a bill to hold a referendum in the second quarter of next year. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily because the upper house drafted the bill. The bill was approved by a strong majority, with 180 of the 182 deputies present in the 200-seat lower house voting in favour.
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