Czechs fear rise of the right in EU vote

PRAGUE — Like others throughout the continent, Czechs are voting in European parliamentary elections on Saturday. And there is growing concern over the rise of right-wing extremist parties.

More than 30 parties are competing for the 22 Czech seats in the European parliament, and the two leading parties from the left and the right are expected to gain the lion's share of those seats.

It's not that any of the extremist parties is expected to win enough votes to gain a seat in Brussels, but rather that a combination of broad public apathy towards European elections combined with a get-out-the-vote drive by the extremists could result in one or more parties qualifying for state subsidies.

Political parties receive state funds based on the number of votes they get above a certain threshold, explained Walek Czeslaw, the deputy minister for human rights.

“The real fear is that with the low (overall) turnout they'll pass 1 percent of the vote and qualify for state funding,” he said.

Jan Hartl, director for the STEM polling agency, said both the Workers Party and the National Party could cross that threshold, if they can turn out about 26,000 voters. Of course, if overall voter turnout is higher than expected — perhaps 35 percent — than the 1 percent threshold will be higher.

In a campaign dominated by an outbreak of egg throwing whenever the leader of the Social Democrats took the stage, a 60-second add that aired only once on Czech public television managed to provoke a public outcry, if only momentarily.

While public attention was quickly diverted by egg throwing, the ad further raised alarm bells at the ministry of human rights and among advocates. The ad calls the Roma "black racists" and "parasites." But the most incendiary line advocates “The Final Solution to the Gypsy Question,” a virtual paraphrase of Hitler's 'The final solution of the Jewish question."

The Nazi's "final solution" aimed to kill all of Europe's Jews through industrialized mass slaughter. And they nearly succeeded, as more than 6 million Jews — as well as large numbers of Roma and others — died in a network of concentration camps.

Czech TV pulled the ad but defended its decision to air it by saying it was bound by law to broadcast all election commercials.

There haven't been any right-wing extremist parties in parliament here since the mid-1990s. But the extremists have used tough economic times to make scapegoats of the Roma, who are marginalized by society in the best of times. Unemployment is up and manufacturing production is down.

The Human Rights Ministry is circulating "an agreement" for politicians to sign, in which they vow to work against racism. Czeslaw says former president Vaclav Havel has also signed the document. It's noteworthy, however, that current President Vaclav Klaus has refused to sign it.

Klaus also vetoed an EU-mandated anti-discrimination bill that was passed by parliament. But parliament has never undertaken to override the veto, leaving the Czechs as the only EU country without an anti-discrimination law on the books.

Klaus, who is generally described as a euroskeptic, actually called himself "an EU dissident" late last year. At about the same time he left the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) — the country's leading right-wing party — which he helped found in the aftermath of the fall of communism in November 1989.

After leaving the ODS, one of his close associates founded a new right-wing party that is openly hostile towards EU integration. More recently Klaus was widely quoted as saying that EU elections were useless and that he wouldn't participate.

Klaus now says he was misunderstood and that “he'll vote tomorrow,” said Petr Macinka, a spokesman for the president. (Polls are open here Friday and Saturday).

Czeslaw says the growing right-wing extremism in the country reached a turning point last autumn when the Workers Party created their own vigilante group and launched a series of "patrols" of a Roma community in Litvinov, about 160 miles northeast of Prague.

More than once, large-scale brawls nearly erupted and at one point 1,000 police were deployed to protect the Roma.  

“The right-wing extremists are using the economic crisis” to attract followers, Czeslaw said. “Their meetings are next to socially excluded communities (like the Roma), where people are unhappy and willing to listen to these extremist views.”

But while the human rights ministry recognizes the problems and wants to act, it faces significant restrictions.

Because it operates more as an appendage of the prime minister's office than as a full ministry, its resources are very limited. In addition, much of the legal authority related to this issue rests with the interior ministry, which has been widely criticized for saying all of the right things but doing very little.

Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights advocate here, points to the ministry's "attempt" to have the Workers Party legally banned last year. “They filed a (legal) brief in December that was so laughably amateurish that the court had no choice but to reject it,” she said.

The Interior Ministry, which assured it would make someone available to comment for this article had not done so at press time.

Albert says it is still unclear how effective the interim government, which is leading the country until early elections in October, will be. “Prime Minister (Jan) Fischer's words have been correct but the proof is in the pudding.”  

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