Social Democrat government defends record
It's three years now since the formation of the minority Social Democrat government, and less than one year until the next general elections. Opinions are firmly divided over how much Prime Minister Milos Zeman's cabinet has really achieved, as well as what it can do with its remaining ten months.
When the Social Democrat government was sworn in August 1998, Prime Minister Milos Zeman described it as a 'suicide cabinet' because of the enormity of the tasks facing it. The main problem was how to revive the economy, which was then in deep recession, and kick start economic growth. This, Mr Zeman says, has been achieved. Economic growth is forecast to hit 3.8% this year, and unemployment has steadily decreased. But the cost to taxpayers, say the opposition parties, has been phenomenal, with the public finance deficit at an all time high. The prime minister himself admits that the national debt is large, but says that the lion's share was caused by previous governments:
"We have had many state-owned banks with bad loans. Before the privatisation of those banks, it was necessary to clean them up, because nobody was willing to buy banks with more than thirty percent of bad loans in their portfolios. That's why these debts were, so to say, clarified. They did not emerge just now, they emerged five or even seven years ago. But for the first time it was clear that these were the real debts."
On Tuesday the prime minister announced an ambitious programme that will take the country up to the next general elections. The government's main priority is to conclude talks on the remaining 11 chapters of European Union legislation, thus leaving the country ready to join the EU. The other key areas include completing the privatisation of the energy and telecommunications sectors, implementing justice and state administration reforms, and fighting economic and racially motivated crime.
The opposition parties have reacted sceptically to the Social Democrats' promises. How, they ask, can the government implement this programme when it has failed to deliver on many pre-election promises, such as its much vaunted fight against crime, and economic crime in particular? But Prime Minister Milos Zeman rejects this criticism, saying that his main goals have been met, and that areas such as crime have also seen great improvements:
"My main promise was we will overcome the economic crisis and we will start economic growth. It has been fulfilled. As for crime, last year the decrease in general crime was eight percent, and in the first half of this year it has fallen by a further nine percent. This is the first time this has happened since the Velvet Revolution [in 1989]. As for economic crime, the first people have been sentenced to prison, thank God."