News Wednesday, DECEMBER 16th, 1998

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Those were the headlines and now the news in more detail:

Economy - slump

The Gross Domestic Product in the third quarter of this year dropped by 2.9 percent year-on-year, a figure which has evoked concern among economists and politicians alike. National Bank spokesman Martin Svehla said the drop was much steeper than expected and reflected the country's growing economic problems. Independent analysts predict a further fall saying the economy has yet to touch rock bottom. Prime minister Milos Zeman has asked for nine months of grace, public support and social peace to give his Cabinet a chance to tackle what he called "a sad legacy from previous right wing governments". " We are sliding deep into recession, and this Cabinet badly needs public support and solidarity. Give us nine months to jump start the economy -if we fail we'll be ready to accept your criticism" Zeman told the Czech public. The Speaker of the Lower House Vaclav Klaus also commented on the gravity of the situation, saying that representatives of the government, Parliament and the Czech National Bank should work closely together to bring the country out of this economic crisis.

Senate - chairperson

The two strongest parties on the Czech political scene, the Social Democrats and the Civic Democratic Party have been holding last-minute consultations regarding today's election of the Senate's chairperson or speaker. The opposition agreement which has enabled the Social Democrats to govern, contains their commitment to support the candidate of the Civic Democratic Party to the post. Although some Social Democrat senators are now refusing to respect the deal, political observers note that there should be enough disciplined party members to see it through. The arrangement has been severely criticized by members of the 4 right wing parties of the quad coalition, who have put forward their own candidate to the post. The Civic Democratic Party's candidate is party deputy chairwoman Libuse Benesova. Her rival is current upper house speaker Petr Pithart.

Havel - health

President Havel who has been battling influenza since Saturday is reported to be stable. His spokesman Ladislav Spacek said the president had only a minor fever and there were no plans to transport him to hospital. For the time being the president's personal physician Ilja Kotik is treating him at Lany Chateau, Spacek said. The president's office has cancelled all his meetings until further notice.

Czechs - defense

Less that a third of all Czechs feel that the country's defense capability is adequate, according to a survey conducted by the Centre for Empirical Studies. 55% Czechs said they thought more money should be going into the country's defense, which is a higher figure than last year's despite the country's present economic problems. There has also been a rise in the number of people who support the Czech Republic's membership in NATO, from 50 to 57%.

Fish theft

A thief who stole nine fish from a vendor's vat on the main square in Brno appears to have taken one too many. The price of the fish -which is a Czech Xmas dish -is just over 2,000 crowns, the official margin which makes the theft a serious offense. The thief could face up to two years in prison, a Brno police spokesman said. However, the thief may be enjoying a good laugh for he has yet to be caught and the police spokesman failed to explain how the thief could have managed to get away unnoticed when the vat in question was standing right in front of Brno's police headquarters.

Czechs - health

As Czechs bake Xmas delicacies for the festive season and fill their fridges to bursting point for the four days of leave health authorities in Ceske Budejovice have picked this exact moment to launch an educational campaign entitled "Cholesterol and health." We want to radically change people's eating habits and teach them to enjoy a balanced diet high on fibre, white meat and vegetables, a dietary specialist said at Tuesday's press briefing. The aim is to get all canteens -be it in schools, institutions or senior citizens homes to provide balanced meals, he added.

Flu epidemic

Although the slight warming here in Central Europe is a relief, health authorities report a severe flu epidemic in several parts of the country. Northern Bohemia has been badly hit with over 22,000 people down with the flu and in the cities of Most and Teplice schools have closed early in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

Finally, a look at the weather: Wednesday's temperatures are expected to remain well above zero, at between 4 and 8 degs. C and we can expect more grey skies and rain. Nighttime lows between 6 and 2 degs C.