Parliament fails to choose Ombudsman

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The lower house of parliament failed on Tuesday to choose an Ombudsman for the Czech Republic. Although the post of Ombudsman is supposed to be apolitical, Parliament's failure to choose a candidate has been attributed to party politics. Nick Carey has the details:

The Ombudsman, if and when he or she is selected, is meant to defend the rights of Czech citizens. If anyone has a legal problem, or issue they feel needs to be brought to the attention of the authorities, they will be able to go to the Ombudsman for help. The Ombudsman will have the power to send the case to the relevant authorities, with a recommendation for action. Although he or she will not have the power to force any resolution, the Ombudsman is expected to be a moral authority, absolutely neutral and apolitical.

Party politics, however, say critics, have played a role in the Ombudsman selection process right from the start. Four candidates were proposed for the post, two by the Senate, and two by President Vaclav Havel, to be voted upon by the lower house. The president's candidates certainly looked well qualified on paper, especially Anna Sabatova, a former Charter 77 signatory and an activist in the Committee for the Unjustly Persecuted. But both of President Havel's candidates failed miserably in the first round of voting last week. This, critics and the papers say, is because neither candidates had been proposed by any political party.

The removal of the president's candidates left the two proposed by the Senate, Simeona Zikmundova, a school authority director, the candidate proposed by the right-of-centre Christian Democrats, and Stanislav Drobny, the chairman of the Confederation of Political Prisoners, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Civic Democrats. Again, both candidates seemed ably qualified to take on the post of Ombudsman. And again, say critics, party politics were the key factor in the vote on Tuesday. After the votes of the 185 MPs present were counted, Stanislav Drobny received 58 votes, and Simeona Zikmundova 39. These figures, unsurprisingly, correspond rather neatly to the number of votes expected for each party, and this been widely condemned, given the apolitical nature of the post.

The failure to select an Ombudsman means new candidates have to be proposed, which could take several months. The next vote would then take place at the end of this year, or the beginning of 2001. Some critics say the failed vote may have been deliberate. The post of Ombudsman was debated on and off for seven years before it was enshrined in law, and it has many opponents, in particular the opposition Civic Democrats. If this were true, it would be in the interests of opponents of the Ombudsman to either discredit the post using party politics before it is filled, or to use party politics to prevent it being filled for as long as possible.

Whether or not the critics are right, the failure to elect an Ombudsman has definitely been bad news for some. Several people have already taken cases to the Ombudsman office in the Moravian capital of Brno, but until someone has been selected to represent them, they can receive no help.