Few real issues in EP election campaign

Three weeks before Czechs go to the polls to vote in elections to the European Parliament, campaigning is in full swing. While the two strongest parties are engaged in destructive mudslinging, the campaign also features a new note – the Lisbon treaty.

The fall of the Czech government in the middle of the country’s EU presidency has further exacerbated the already bad relations between the two major Czech parties: Mr Topolánek’s centre-right Civic Democrats, and the Social Democrats headed by Jiří Paroubek. Both parties have put their money on destructive, negativistic campaigns focussing on each other’s weaknesses rather than bringing up real issues and presenting their own priorities.

In November, a negative campaign by the Social Democrats ahead of Senate and regional elections hinged on criticizing the government’s reforms, and it worked perfectly. The party has therefore decided to follow the same strategy in elections to the EP.

‘I will vote for the Civic Democrats’, says an elderly man in the street, ‘because due to expensive electricity, my wife cannot watch soap operas on TV every day.’

But the Civic Democrats had learnt their lesson. In February, they launched a website called ‘Social Democrats - against you’. The site ridicules some of the party’s ideas and promises as well as some of Mr Paroubek’s most memorable moments.

One of them shows Mr Paroubek answering questions about his income. He ended by asking the reporters, ‘no offence, ladies and gentlemen, but who, among you, makes as much?’

As in the last elections to the European Parliament, the two major parties pay scant attention to the EU agenda. But there are others for whom EU-related topics are the pivotal part of their policy programme.

One of them is the newly established Free Citizens’ Party, founded by Petr Mach, a former student of President Václav Klaus. The party wants to defend Czech national interests in the EU, which really means fighting against the Lisbon treaty and any further European integration, and they would like to form a genuine opposition in the European Parliament. The Free Citizens’ Party had a good start earlier this year when the President expressed support for the new eurosceptic group. But as one of its candidates said, Mr Klaus recently told him that they had ruined the opportunities for the right-wing for years to come.

Vladimír Železný and Vlastimil Tlustý  (right) of Libertas.cz,  photo: CTK
Another eurosceptic group is Libertas.cz, the Czech branch of a eurosceptic movement founded by Ireland’s Declan Ganley. Its number one nominee for the coming elections is former Civic Democrat Vlastimil Tlustý, who helped topple the government in March. And number two on the list is MEP Vladimír Železný, a former TV tycoon who has just been handed a suspended sentence of two years for tax fraud.

Meanwhile, polls suggest that the Christian Democrats, who are defending two seats in the EP, will have a tough time getting in all. There are also two green parties, the extremist Workers’ Party, and some other rather obscure groupings such as Firemen and Entrepreneurs, the monarchists and the Moravians.

The outcome of the vote will also depend on voter turnout which in 2004 was exceptionally low - just over 28 percent. So the one common strategy all parties share is to get as many voters as possible to the polls on June 5th and 6th.