Voting has ended in the first round of the Senate elections, in a poll marked by low turnout. Officials said only 30 percent of the electorate had bothered to vote in the first round, held on Friday and Saturday. A third of the Senate's 81 seats are being contested, in a vote which will help to choose a successor to President Vaclav Havel. The Senate has little real power, as vetoes can be overridden by the lower house. But its consent is crucial for changes to the constitution and its members elect a president along with 200 lower house deputies. Most Czechs see the Senate as irrelevant, and turnout has also been low in past elections.
The only incident in an otherwise uneventful first round occurred in Brno, when a member of the electoral commission died of a heart attack minutes before the polling booth was due to open. Doctors were unable to save the 75-year-old man, who collapsed shortly after arriving on Saturday morning. The chief electoral officer said the polling booth had opened on time.
The only senator elected in the first round was Vladimir Zelezny, head of the country's hugely popular television station TV Nova. Early results from the Znojmo constituency showed Mr Zelezny had received just over 50 percent of the vote. Elsewhere, candidates for the opposition right-of-centre Civic Democrats appear to have made the strongest showings, followed by the ruling Social Democrats.
Foreign ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have expressed caution at a French-German agreement aimed at settling agriculture issues with European Union candidates. The agreement was billed in Brussels as a solution to the dispute over reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. It calls for a phase-in of farm subsidies after enlargement in 2004 and a subsidy freeze starting in 2007. But Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, following talks in Prague with Slovak counterpart Eduard Kukan, said the agreement was merely "a basis for further negotiation" and a possible step toward resolving the issue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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