Czech politicians come to blows two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections

David Rath and Miroslav Macek, photo: CTK

It was a resounding slap that reverberated for hours after it had been dealt. At a meeting of Czech dentists on Saturday Miroslav Macek, a former deputy prime minister in the 1990s and long time adviser to President Vaclav Klaus, walked over to Health Minister David Rath and without warning hit him on the back of the head, starting a fistfight. Macek claims he was settling a personal score with the minister because of insulting remarks he'd made about his wife, but the nature of the attack - at the start of a conference with TV cameras rolling - suggested otherwise. The incident came less than a fortnight before parliamentary elections in the midst of what commentators have described as the most aggressive election campaign in the country's modern history.

David Rath and Miroslav Macek,  photo: CTK
It is rare for Czech politicians to come to blows and whatever Mr. Macek's intention - it appears to have backfired. The Civic Democratic Party of which he was a prominent member in the 1990s clearly resented the negative publicity. Mirek Topolanek is the party's chairman:

"This is a private affair of Mr. Macek's and a very serious blunder. The Civic Democratic Party wants to distance itself from the incident and I would advise Mr. Macek to consider leaving the party. He is damaging our reputation, the party's image and what we stand for."

Rarely does a slap have so much impact. If it hurt the Civic Democrats it also caused embarrassment at Prague Castle and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek was quick to point out that such behaviour from an adviser to the president should not be tolerated.

"I appeal to President Klaus to take appropriate action in this matter involving his long-term adviser. I assume that like myself the President has an interest in supporting and enhancing political culture in the Czech Republic."

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
So what is the level of political culture in the country? Is the 2006 election campaign as aggressive as it made out to be? Political analyst Jiri Pehe thinks not.

"This is an aggressive campaign only by Czech standards. I would argue that Czechs are not used to the kind of aggressive campaign that we can see in other countries. Things that have happened in the Czech election campaign are not unusual in Europe or in the United States, so I think you have to look at it in comparative terms and from that point of view I wouldn't say that the Czech campaign is overly aggressive."

Given the fact that Czech voters are not used to it, how will it influence them?

"Well, I think that many Czech voters are really disgusted with politicians, at least this is what opinion polls show and of course this kind of election campaign may prompt more people not to care about politics, to stay at home and not go to the polls. So this is a danger. On the other hand, the fact that the campaign has been aggressive and therefore lively may have the opposite effect. It is quite possible that a lot of people will feel they should vote, that they should somehow be engaged because they have been angered by what they have seen."