The Czech Republic is gripped with election fever - the papers are full of evaluations, analysis, opinion poll results, and predictions. But it is not elections involving Czechs that the papers are concentrating on - it's the Presidential elections in the United States and this despite the fact that Czechs are to go to the polls this weekend to vote for one-third of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, and in regional elections. Yes, granted, the US presidential elections are much more interesting and they are important... but - for Czechs - are they more important than the up-coming regional elections?
Political commentator Vladimira Dvorakova says the regional elections are much more important than they appear to be:
"Just after the revolution in 1989, the governmental structure was changed and only the central government and the small units were created. This was a bad way for the public to solve its problems because they could only be solved in either very small units in some localities or centrally. So, it was quite clear that it was necessary to form some other regional government, some other structure that would be able to solve problems that are near to the people as the region would be able to understand the problems better than on the central level."
The establishment of 14 regional authorities was the chosen solution. In November, 2000, Czechs went to the polls to elect their regional governors for the first time in the country's history. These regional administrations began to work on January 1, 2001 nearly a decade after the reform process had been launched. The goal was to bring decision-making closer to the people and meet the needs of individual regions. Decisions taken in Prague were often far too general and failed to meet the needs of such diverse regions as the industrial northern Bohemia and the largely agricultural southern Moravia. Although the country's decentralization scheme met with some scepticism and fear of increased bureaucracy, it was generally viewed as a positive step.
Man 1: "It's probably a little slower than planned but it needs time to solve the problem in communication between people, the regions, and the government. I think it will be okay in a few years."
Woman 1: "I think that nowadays people can observe politicians closer and can see the results of their decisions in their regions. It's no longer about what the politicians decided in Prague. But still, there's a question of power, which really has not been divided well enough between Prague and the regions."
Man 2: "I think that the people are so passive because they do not trust the government. But if they elect a person in the region, he is more of a friend than an unknown person in the government and so it is much easier to communicate and solve the problems of the region."
But, regional governors say, it was a step that was not completely thought out. The country's regions may have been given more responsibility, but they were not given the financial resources to carry out these responsibilities. There was a blurred picture as to who was in charge of what. Evzen Tosenovsky is the governor of the region of North Moravia and Silesia. As he told Czech President Vaclav Klaus last week, and later Czech TV, it is a miracle that the administrational units have survived:
"An incredible number of institutions suddenly became our responsibility - schools, health facilities, roads - all of these directly affect the lives of citizens. We also took over property, teachers' salaries, and we had to solve problems with hospitals in debt. These were all very important things and with the little preparation that we were given, we could have found ourselves in a very critical situation, where something could have gone wrong. So, the fact that citizens did not have to go through any major problems is a large success of the individual regions."
On November 12, 2000, less than forty percent of eligible voters came to cast their ballot. Today, polls suggest that half the population do not know who their local governor is and also do not believe that the changes have brought the decision-making process closer to them. But why are Czechs so uninterested?
Man 3: "The regional level is still too high. The administrations should be in the villages and not in places with an average population of one million. It's not possible to behave the way the people want then."
Man 4: "I'm afraid that in our state that is still full of bureaucracy, which was one of the main reasons for the change of the regime fourteen years ago, the bureaucracy is still here and is now getting even more powerful."
Man 5: "I'm not too interested in this issue but what I noticed is that there are many problems with areas like public health, for example. When the regions say that they do not have enough money, the government says they bear the responsibility and have to deal with it. So, I think there is a systemic problem in the division of responsibilities."
Political commentator Vladimira Dvorakova:
"Most of the public is not sure what the competences are and what can be solved on the regional level. They are also not sure of the importance of the regions. In fact, they are rather important because they can solve the problems dealing with education, the health care, the question of how many hospitals there should be can be solved by the regional government, as well as which high schools will work in that region. So, they are really important and people don't know very much about it. On the other hand, the low turn out is not only the case in regional elections. It is a sign of what I would call is not very strong trust in politics."
A point that Mr Tosenovsky agrees with to some extent, noting that there still is a lack of public trust in its governors simply because individual ministries, with their regulations and controls, try to continue to hold a controlling hand over the regions:
"We may make decisions on many things but we still have to get the green light from the respective ministries. The naming of school principals, for example, where some regions have over 300, has to be approved by the education ministry. Many mayors still have to travel to Prague and ask for grants and subsidies ... the list goes on. So, our responsibilities are growing but the fact that the government still controls us could be the reason why many people do not believe that the administrative process has been simplified but is even more complicated. This also gives citizens the impression that there is a lack of trust from the government in the regions."
But political commentator Vladimira Dvorakova is optimistic for the future:
"What is interesting is that the activity of politicians, their election campaign for the regional elections, is much higher and maybe even rougher and more brutal than was the case four years ago. This is quite interesting because it seems to me that the negative results of the European elections changed the attitude of some politicians to the regional elections and I would say that now, it is more organised and parties are extremely active in this campaign and extremely aggressive, in some sense."
It remains to be seen whether this, coupled with the government's promise to further reform public administration in order to clearly define roles and responsibilities, will lead to a significant increase in voter turnout in four years' time.
This week-end, elections will take place in all regions with the exception of the district of Prague, which gained its own assembly in 2002 and will hold elections in 2006.