New lower house sworn into office

This week sees the first session of the newly elected Czech lower house of parliament with new MPs being sworn into office. The election results have been known for almost a month. The winning Social Democratic Party have 70 of the 200 seats in the lower house and they are followed by Vaclav Klaus's right-of-centre Civic Democrats who have 58 seats. The Communist Party came third with 41 seats and the centre-right grouping of the Freedom Union and the Christian Democrats have 31 seats between them. We know the number of seats but do we really know who is behind the numbers? In this week's edition of Talking Point Pavla Horakova looks at the newly elected lower house, the trends concerning the age, education and gender of its members.

Several things are clear. The new lower chamber is older than the previous one; there are a few more women and more graduates of the communist-era Political University. All these facts can be attributed to the unexpectedly high gains of the Communists. Earlier I spoke to sociologist Lukas Linek who specialises in studies of parliaments around the world.

"There are three main social-demographic variables: the age, gender and education, which are studied in parliaments around the world. I'll start with age. The trend in the Czech Republic is clear: the MPs are older. They were around 44 years old after the elections in 1992, now they are more than 47. It is not easy to say that an old chamber or government is better. There are two opinions on this matter. Older MPs have problems with hard and stressing work. ON the other hand, if the aging of the chamber or government is due to previous experience in politics, it is an advantage both for the party which proposed the MP and for the MP him or herself. I'm not sure whether it is an advantage for voters because MPs with a long life in politics are easier to be blackmailed by lobbies and special interest groups because of several mistakes in previous office. These people could be more prone to some decisions, advantages for special interest groups that have something on these people."

The average age of the MPs may be higher but the proposed candidate for the post of chairman of the lower house, 45-year old Lubomir Zaoralek, will be the youngest person in the post since 1989. As for education, there are 12 more MPs with a university degree, that's more than 80 percent graduates.

While Mr Zaoralek has a doctorate in philosophy, a lot of the new MPs have technical education - and some observers say the chamber will be too technocratic. Sociologist Lukas Linek again.

"The Czech situation is very different from other countries because we have a problem with the mixed title of engineer. This title is given both to graduates of technical subjects and economic graduates and it poses problems analysing the educational structure of the chamber of deputies or Senate. The statements about the "technocratisation" of Czech parliament or Czech politics could be mistaken in this way. We cannot say that a graduate of political science or international business from the University of Economics with the title of engineer is more of a technocrat than a graduate of political science at the Faculty of Social Science."

The Czech political scene is predominantly male. Although there are four more women in the new lower house, women still make up only 17 percent of its members - a figure incomparable with countries like Sweden, where women constitute over 40 percent of parliament members.

"It's a strongly discussed question in western democracies. Czech politics is very different in that almost no one is talking about the problem of the proportion of women in Czech politics. Several people who are fighting for women's rights and issues in the society are discussing this but it's not a common theme. The trend in the Czech chamber of deputies is also clear as with age. There are more women in the Chamber of Deputies than before but the trend is somewhat slow. There were about 10 percent of women after the elections in 1992, after the 1998 elections there were about 15 percent of women and now it's more but the difference is not big. As a social scientist I cannot say whether it is bad or good whether there are few or more women in politics. No one has proved that women in politics did better or worse than men. It is a question of moral decision mainly for men to decide whether it is better to put more women in politics."

The slight increase in the number of women in the lower house is a result of the gains of the Communist Party which has the largest female representation in the parliament. Michaela Marksova-Tominova is a women's rights activist and also a member of the Social Democratic Party.

"Firstly I would like to comment on the fact that there are four women more in the lower chamber, because it looks like a progress. But if we look at it carefully, it is only because the Communist Party won such a big amount of votes. Actually, it was the only party which had about 30 percent of women on their candidate lists. So the rest of the parties, which call themselves 'democratic' have a much smaller percentage of women and if we look at the political clubs in the parliament, then the Communists have about 30 percent while all the other parties have 12, 13, 14 percent of women within their clubs. So actually, we cannot say it is a positive change because it's just a matter of accident."

While the previous government of Milos Zeman had no women ministers at all, the new cabinet, confirmed this week, will have two female members, both for the Social Democrats.

"In the previous government there wasn't a single woman. We were maybe the only country in Europe without a single woman in the government. But I think it's a good start and we as women's NGOs can start to lobby farther on things like the equal opportunities law which can lead to quotas for the next elections and so on."

Can we say that there are so few women in politics because they don't want to become involved or is the low number of women in the lower house a result of internal party politics where it is difficult for women to get past their male colleagues in the primary elections inside the parties. Michaela Marksova-Tominova.

"I think both of the two things together. Because as we can see, in the Communist Party they do have the women if they wish to and there are women in the other parties too. But it's very difficult through the primary elections to overcome the male colleagues because they tend more to create alliances. So I think there are two things here; on the one hand it is difficult for the woman who is already involved in the party to get to the good place on the candidate lists, on the other hand there are not enough women who are really willing to do it as well and this is connected with a general feeling in the society which somehow still sees politics as something dirty and male-dominated and not a business for women which of course is nonsense. It is even more nonsense in our country where the number of working women is among the biggest in the whole world. Women here are very active, they do not stay at home so they should enter politics but I think that many people somehow don't understand this connection yet."