The Roma in Czech politics


The Czech Republic is often criticised by the outside world for doing little to improve the living conditions of its Roma minority. It is hard for them to find work, many live in what amount to ghettos with very poor housing conditions, their children often end up in schools for kids with learning disabilities...the list goes on. But with up to 3 percent of the population Romany, why do Roma figure so little in the forthcoming elections? Dita Asiedu looks at the Roma community's political engagement:

Though there are no official figures on the number of Roma in the Czech Republic, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 live in this country. But in the years since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, there has only been one significant Romany political party, campaigning specifically for the minority's interests: the Roma Civic Initiative. Gabriela Hrabanova is the director of the Roma student organisation Athinganoi:

"Immediately after the revolution was the greatest period for the Roma and their political activism. On the second day after November 17th 1989, the Roma took the opportunity to bring Vaclav Havel a kind of recommendation from the Roma, what they would like to see as part of the change after Communism. All of these people wanted change and were full of euphoria and were motivated to take part and be involved in the change itself. The partnership was so strong that Vaclav Havel gave a whole floor of his office on Wenceslas Square to the Roma. There was a Roma secretariat and the Roma from the entire country came there and wanted to do something."

And that was how the Roma Civic Initiative, known here as ROI, came to being. Within a decade, it gained twenty thousand members. Though ROI never managed to pass the 5 percent threshold to get into parliament, it was dedicated to Roma rights. The party battled the growing neo-Nazi movement and pushed for more Roma representatives in the police force. But the elections in 2002 were the last that ROI took part in. An intra-party struggle resulting from internal disagreement saw it disintegrate into several local Roma unions. Brady Clough is from the Centre for Political Analysis:

"Up to now, it seems that most Roma incline to vote for left of centre parties like the Social Democrats or the Communists. But to a large degree it is mainly because of those parties' tendency to be more friendly as regards social welfare programmes. There is also the fact that there is certain nostalgia among the older generations of the Roma that during the Communist period there were certain social certainties or guaranteed social welfare that they haven't had since 1989 and that includes mainly a guaranteed right to employment or a guaranteed right to acceptable housing."

It has been difficult for the Roma to join forces and form a new united party. But to Brady Clough, this would not be a productive move anyway:

"I think the Roma would do best to work in larger more functioning political parties that have a broad platform that addresses many issues from education to social welfare to acceptance of minorities to cultural issues and so on. If Roma would band together, join these parties, and say 'look, as a member of your party I have the ability to broaden the scope or the appeal of your political platform and bring in potential Roma voters who trust me and know that I will work to include their needs in your political platform', then I think that is the best option for the Roma at this particular time."

In 2003, Gabriela Hrabanova unsuccessfully ran for the post of councilor in Prague's town hall. Today, she feels non-governmental organizations set up especially to help the Roma are more effective than politicians:

"I would say that we don't see the positive examples, the role models. The other thing is that even after two decades the situation is getting worse. People are living on the margins of society and if you're going down and down, you don't see the positive steps. There is a trend right now that once you want to really do something and influence things you can do it through non-governmental organizations, which are kind of supplementing the role of the state. You can see it on the politicians too that the Roma issue is just one of many issues for them and there is no will to dig deeper and do something good."

While Roma may not be achieving much to improve their living conditions on a national level, Gabriela Hrabanova is convinced that they can do a lot locally:

"We are organising a training programme for ten women and one of the aims is to see them take part in the local elections in November. We want to have a group of Roma women who know how politics works and how to lobby for their cause within the government, especially the local government. We also want to motivate them to be active and to show that we can be influential and also help our colleagues in the NGOs to do a much better job."