Talking Point Can citizen power change the face of Czech town halls?
One of the most startling features of recent elections in big cities, towns and local councils across the Czech Republic was the success of independent citizens’ groups in winning seats. Many campaigned on a simple ticket of throwing the incumbent big parties or coalitions, often tarnished with mismanagement or corruption, out of power. So do those elections mark a radical change or just a blip and is there any reason to hope that the blight of local government corruption can be conquered? In this week’s Talking Point we look at the phenomenon and chances of a Czech anti-corruption drive.
Across the Czech Republic from Liberec in the north to České Budějovice in the south, Karlovy Vary in the west to Zlín in the east there were strong showings in mid-October elections for citizens’ groups taking a stand against parties that have been in power for a long time and been linked to corrupt or dubious dealings. It was not just the big cities either, the same trend could be seen in smaller towns.
One of those smaller towns was Černošice, around 15 kilomtres south-west of Prague, which had been dominated by the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, or ODS. The local elections have transformed the political map there with a local citizens’ group, Černošice Affairs, winning 12 of the 21 council seats and the long-established parties faring badly. Filip Kořínek is the citizens’ group candidate to be the next mayor. He says the vote clearly represented a backlash against the established political parties.
“I think that this whole election shows a trend where people realized that there is no need to have politicians on their councils and actually people now want their city councils to be run by people from amongst them, active citizens. And especially in smaller cities where people know each other much more, I think this is possible. So when I look at the results of the elections in places around ours I could see a very similar picture everywhere wherever there was an independent group of citizens not related to any bigger political party, typically this was the winner.”
While Mr. Kořínek does not directly accuse the previous council of corruption, he says there were some pretty dubious land deals prepared. and the previous regime showed a basic contempt for fundamental principles of democracy.
“The council was actually dominated by the Civic Democrat Party, the ODS, which has shown a lot of different things which you would not want to see on your city council: abuse of the zoning plan, conflicts of interest, refusal to provide information and threats and overall an attitude of, say, arrogance and low willingness to run the office as a service to citizens.”
Tomáš Kramár is head of the anti-corruption programme of the non-for-profit organisation Oživení, or renewal, which has campaigned against local government graft. He says the local election results this time round produced a surprisingly succinct message that voters will not tolerate town hall corruption.
“Compared to the last elections four years ago when we were very disappointed, now we are very positively surprised that in quite a lot of cities these anti-candidates whose programme was to eliminate the ruling mafias won the elections. It was very unexpected.”
He says that the problem of corruption grew over the last years at a local level, though of course there are no real figures for how big it is. This is because many parties or coalitions were in power for so long and nurtured close links with business.
“I would not use the word mafias but you know these networks and connections between local politicians and local business groups and in a lot of cities one group of politicians was ruling for the last let’s say 10 to 15 years. These connections became very obvious and very strong and, for example, when cities sold some properties or gave some public contracts. A lot of money was flowing into some business groups. Everybody knew it and know it but everybody knows as well that there is no way of stopping it from the outside.”
Nationwide it is estimated that around 15 percent of the value of public contracts is accounted for by bribes or pay-offs. Contracts from local councils represent around half of all national tenders with the budgets of some city halls, such as Prague, bigger than some national ministries. So the sums being talked about are amount to hundreds of billions of crowns, or tens of billions of dollars.
While Mr. Kramár is optimistic that the local elections will result in a clean out at some councils he warns that the apparent victory of the citizens’ groups in some places could be pyrrhic and that they could be soon sidelined. Negotiations over the make up off many councils are still going on days after the results were declared.
“From some cities we have information that these anti-corruption activists who got onto local councils will be pushed out or pushed away from local government because local politicians are afraid of what they could do. You know, taking out some contracts and trying to break them. But there are still enough towns and cities where these newly elected activists will be governing.”
Citizens’ groups have taken power in Liberec and Zlín and are poised to elsewhere. But the picture is far from clear in Prague, where it was not a citizens’ group but a new party with some old faces, TOP 09, which won victory in the capital. In Prague, TOP 09’s campaign was headed by the former governor of the Czech National Bank, Zdeněk Tůma, who has build a solid reputation for competence and not been tarnished by corruption. The Civic Democrats had been badly splattered by a series of corruption scandals with former president Václav Havel dubbing it the worst administration in recent memory.
But with haggling over who will govern Prague still continuing, anti-corruption campaigner Tomáš Kramár has doubts whether TOP 09’s victory will really result in a sea change in the capital.
“I am not very optimistic in the case of the city of Prague. I am happy that the ODS lost these elections because it is naturally healthy that parties have to change during elections and the ODS was ruling from 1990 – let’s say 20 years without a break. But the people who were elected from the other parties and TOP 09, we do not know them. We do not know what they will do. We only know that the probable new mayor of Prague is a known, clean person. But there are many other people and it will be a very big surprise to see how they will behave and how consistent the party will be.”
Meanwhile in Černošice, the victorious citizens’ group says it is prepared to govern with all the other parties, apart from the Civic Democrats although it could do so alone. And Filip Kořínek promises a fundamental change in the way things are done.
“We have very specific ideas on what we want to change. We have had difficulties getting information. We had difficulties getting good ideas put through because they were rejected just because of the person who was submitting them. This is not going to be the case.”
Oživení’s Tomáš Kramár says cleaning up the situation at local government level in the Czech Republic demands some basic changes in the law. He says the main problems are the many loopholes in the legal situation and in particular the weakness of the state to probe mismanagement and corruption and take remedial action. Here, he contrasts the situation of the Czech spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, which has no oversight of local government activities with that of counterparts in neighbouring countries.
“The power of the National Audit Office compared with Slovakia, Poland and Germany is very weak, let’s say, zero at the local, communal level. The main problem is the lack of law enforcement at the local level and when you put that together the fact that the audit office has no right to oversee, that the media are not very interested in local affairs and more concerned about national issues, and that local citizens do not have the right to sue contracts, to get them to court, when they are signed in an illegal way. That all makes a situation where you cannot punish mayors or local politicians when they wastefully mismanage city property.”
In Germany, for example, he says the watchdog demands reports of steps taken to address its criticisms. Here, the reports are just pieces of paper. To sum it up, he says, local politicians are virtually untouchables are regards prosecution. In Slovakia, the corruption fight has gone much farther and a new law has also taken effect which aims at allowing ordinary citizens to bring their local masters to book.
“They have a new municipal law there that gave citizens the right to bring local contracts to court if they think they are signed in an illegal way that is harming the city’s interests. We prepared an amendment to the Czech municipal law and this is now being discussed at the Ministry of Interior.”
He hopes that the good results from the local elections will help this amendment since many anti-corruption activists are backing it. But the newly ousted and admonished political parties might believe the elections were just a blip on the political map and all they will have to do is wait until better times.