Both the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats are mobilizing their voters ahead of the second round of elections to the Senate due to take place next weekend. In view of the Social Democrats’ strong lead in the first round of voting, the ruling Civic Democrats fear they could lose their narrow majority in the upper chamber. The balance of power in the Senate will be crucial for pending votes on planned reforms, the Lisbon treaty, winning approval for a US radar base to be built on Czech soil, and the government’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan and Kosovo in 2009.
The Social Democrats have indicated that they are primarily interested in forming regional coalitions with the Christian Democrats and the Communists. Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek told Czech Radio on Sunday that his party intended to keep its election promises and would favour coalitions with partners for whom the Social Democrats’ policy goals would be acceptable. The Social Democrats have promised to abolish medical fees in regional hospitals, prevent their privatization and generally modify the impact of the government’s reforms on the socially weaker groups of the population.
Opposition leader Jiří Paroubek, whose Social Democrats scored a resounding victory in the weekend regional elections, has suggested that Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek should be replaced. Speaking shortly after his party’s election triumph, Mr. Paroubek said that Mirek Topolánek was no longer acceptable in the post of prime minister, especially in view of the country’s upcoming EU presidency and that the governing coalition should consider a post-election re-shuffle. The Social Democrats say they will await the outcome of a no-confidence vote in the centre right government on Wednesday, and have made it clear that if the government falls they would be prepared to support a caretaker government to see the country through its EU presidency in the first half of 2009.
Radek Sušil, an independent running for the Social Democrats has become the only candidate to secure a seat in the Senate in the first round of elections. He was elected senator for the Karviná constituency, in north Moravia winning 53,3 percent of the vote. Radek Sušil, a surgeon and a member of the municipal assembly in the town of Karviná, wants to focus on health and social issues. He is opposed to medical fees, introduced by the current centre-right government, and to the privatisation of hospitals which the government wants to push through.
The Green Party of the governing coalition, which failed to win a single post in the Senate or any of the 13 regional assemblies, has expressed disappointment with the outcome of the vote. Party leader Martin Bursík said that in-fighting within the Green Party was partly to blame, but he said the main problem was that these elections were perceived as a stand-off between the two strongest parties on the Czech political scene, which had left all the smaller parties in the shade.
David Rath, who led the Social Democrats to victory in the central Bohemian region, has said he wants to hold a regional referendum on the siting of a US radar base in the region, which he said would send an important signal to Parliament. Mr. Rath said much would depend on the outcome of the second round of Senate elections because if the Civic Democrats lost their majority in the Senate the radar’s future in the Czech lands would be highly problematic.
In an effort to further capitalize on his party’s victory, Jiří Paroubek on Sunday extended an olive branch to his predecessor at the head of the party, Miloš Zeman, urging him to return to the Social Democrats and persuade two Social Democrat defectors –Miloš Melčák and Michal Pohanka – to help bring down the government. Mr. Zeman, who recently showed an interest in returning to high politics, refused to comment on the matter saying he had not been officially contacted by anyone from the Social Democratic Party. He and Mr. Paroubek have long been arch rivals and the founding father of the Social Democrats, Mr. Zeman is believed to have retained a strong influence on some party members.
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said on Sunday that the elections were a
slap in the face from voters, but that he was determined to fight both for
his government and his place at the head of the party. He made the
statement on national television in the face of criticism from senior
members of his own party, who said the entire Civic Democrat leadership
should resign in the face of the party’s humiliating defeat.
Two of the party’s deputy leaders, Prague mayor Pavel Bém and Agriculture Minister Petr Gandalovič said it was obvious that the blame lay with the party leadership, rather than with the regions. Mr. Bém said the Social Democrats had turned the regional elections into a referendum on the Civic Democrats’ performance on a national level and the party leadership had failed the test. It had moreover done little to combat the aggressive election campaign of the opposition Social Democrats, Mr. Bém said.
An investigation continues into the cause of the fire that ravaged a whole wing of Prague’s historic art deco Industrial Palace at the city’s main exhibition grounds on Thursday night. The fire raged for most of the night and damages have been estimated at 1 billion crowns, the equivalent of around 50 million US dollars. The police are investigating a number of theories including the explosion of an oxygen container at one of the exhibition stalls, a short circuit and even arson. The blaze destroyed part of the building rented by the son of Social Democrat supporter Václav Kočka, whose other son was shot dead last week. The Kočka family, which holds the concession to run a fun-fair at the exhibition grounds, has in the past been accused of having links to organised crime.
Czech top officials have welcomed a statement by US President George Bush according to which seven countries, including the Czech Republic, have met the criteria for the US visa waiver programme and would be given visa-free status with a month’s time. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said the abolition of US visas for Czech citizens would remove one of the last remnants of the Cold War era and further deepen good relations between the two countries. Although no date has been announced, Czech officials have indicated that it will most likely be November 17th, the anniversary of the student protests that led to the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
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