A Long Week In Czech Politics

SMS message for Senator Jana Juřenčáková, photo: CTK
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For many politicians as well as the public, the week between the first presidential election, which was concluded last Saturday, and this Friday’s one, was very long indeed. But rather than being a time for reflection and even policy-centred campaigning, the Czech political sphere boiled over with accusations of foul play, criminal conduct, extortion and blackmail.

Evžen Snítilý, photo: CTK
Whispers about untoward pressures being exerted on lawmakers to vote for a particular candidate have been around for weeks, but it wasn’t till recently that these crystallized into specific accusations. The first sigh of trouble came during the third round of voting in the first election last Saturday when pro-Klaus Social Democrat deputy Evžen Snítilý and pro-Klaus Christian Democrat senators Josef Kalbáč and Karel Barták were unexpectedly absent from the vote. In Snítilý’s case, the MP collapsed shortly before the third round and had to be taken to hospital. Media speculation later surfaced that Snítilý had collaborated with the communist secret police and was possibly being blackmailed or bribed by the Civic Democrats to vote for Klaus, something the party and Snítilý strongly deny. Yet the speculation continued: Was this why the party was so insistent on a secret ballot? Meanwhile, Senator Barták was rumoured to have left the assembly with heart problems but later explained that he absented himself because he refused to take part in a public vote, while Senator Josef Kalbáč left after allegedly getting into a skirmish in the men’s toilets with someone who pressured him not to support the current president.

SMS message for Senator Jana Juřenčáková, photo: CTK
But that wasn’t the end of it. Independent Senator Jana Juřenčáková claims to have received a threatening SMS message “How much did you get from Klaus? Die.” She, Karel Barták, Josef Kalbáč and four other lawmakers also later claimed to have been sent letters containing gunpowder or even bullets - all threatening those who had supported Klaus. Was this being done by pro-Švejnar forces, or by pro-Klaus forces trying to discredit their opponents? No-one could say and speculation was rife.

The week also brought an allegation of bribery. Independent senator Josef Novotný claimed that an unnamed Civic Democrat senator had offered him two million crowns to support Klaus, a claim vehemently denied by the party. Yet another rumour making the rounds concerned an alleged threat by Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolánek to the pro-Švejnar Christian Democratic leader Jiří Čunek to re-open the case of his alleged bribe taking unless he supported Václav Klaus.

In addition to bullets, gunpowder, bribes and blackmail, the public was treated to gutter language from Interior Minister Ivan Langer whose private conversation with Green Party leader Martin Bursík during Saturday’s election was recorded and released by the Nova television station.

The public watched all this while a headline in one of the Czech tabloids said it all: “We don’t care about your squabbling – let us choose our leader!” Polls suggest the vast majority of Czechs now strongly favour direct elections. The events of the last week have certainly done little to promote the idea that the head of state should continue to be elected by parliament.