Social Democrats divided ahead of key vote on gay marriage

Supporters and opponents of the registered partnership bill are gathering themselves for the next round in what is becoming something of an epic struggle. The bill was vetoed last week by President Vaclav Klaus, after being approved by both houses of parliament. Now the bill - which legalises gay marriage - is due to go back to the lower house, where MPs must decide whether to override Mr Klaus's veto. But the outcome of that vote is far from certain. Rob Cameron has more.

The lower house of parliament convenes for its next session on March 7th, and the registered partnership bill is top of the agenda. Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, whose governing Social Democrats submitted the bill, must find 101 votes in the 200-seat lower house to override the president's veto. But that could be tough. Even Mr Paroubek's own party is divided over gay marriage. Social Democrat MP Eva Novakova explains why she will defy the prime minister and vote against the bill.

"I think they definitely must have the right to live together, not to be punished for it, it's their life. And to be honest many of my friends are homosexuals and I like them and I think they should be happy together. But I think the family is something special. We don't really give some rights to couples because they like each other or love each other, but because they are going to have children and raise children. And when we are talking about families, or marriage, we are talking about children."

Mr Paroubek has issued vague threats of removing MPs from the Social Democrat list of candidates in the upcoming general election if they step out of line over the registered partnership bill. But Eva Novakova for one said she was unmoved by the threats.

Even if Mr Paroubek could guarantee that all 70 Social Democrat MPs vote in favour, he still needs a further 31 votes to override the president's veto. One of his junior coalition partners, the Freedom Union, have pledged their 10 votes. The other, the Christian Democrats, are opposed to the bill. So the prime minister must look instead to the opposition for support. The right-of-centre Civic Democrats are unlikely to help out Mr Paroubek three months before the elections. So once again it's the Communists and their 41 seats who will decide the fate of the bill. They, like the Social Democrats, are not united, making it difficult to predict the outcome.

Under the proposed law, same-sex couples would have the right to officially register - and terminate - their relationship. Gay couples would also have access to information on the health of their partner. They would be able to raise, but not adopt children. Gay rights activists say the public are behind their long campaign to be treated as equals. All will be decided in parliament in two weeks' time.