Czech Republic

Background

Czech history at a glance

The Republic of Czechoslovakia was establishedIn October 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The new state united the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia, which had been incorporated into the Austrian Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Slovakia, which had been under Hungarian rule for almost 1,000 years.

Because Czechoslovakia inherited the greater part of the industries of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it was economically the most favoured of the Hapsburg successor states. Benefiting from a liberal, democratic constitution (1920) and led by able statesmen, the new republic appeared to have a bright future. Redistribution of some of the estates of the former nobility and the church generally improved the living conditions of the peasantry. In foreign policy Czechoslovakia relied on its friendship with France and on its "Little Entente" with Yugoslavia and Romania. Yet the new state was far from a stable unit. With its antagonistic and nationalistic ethnic elements, it reflected the inherent weakness of the Habsburg Empire. The Czechs and Slovaks had separate histories and greatly differing religious, cultural, and social traditions. The constitution of 1920 set up a highly centralized unitary state and thus failed to take into account the important problem of national minorities. The Germans and Magyars of Czechoslovakia openly agitated against the territorial settlements. Although the constitution provided for autonomy for Ruthenia, in practice autonomy was constantly postponed. The Slovak People's party accused the Czech government of having denied Slovakia promised autonomous rights.

The Czechoslovakian state disintegration started with the 1938 Munich Agreement in which Czechoslovakia was forced to cede Sudetenland to Germany. Bohemia and Moravia were declared a protectorate of the Third Reich. After the war, Czechoslovakia was reunited and within a three-year period, the communists were able to abolish the parliamentary democracy and establish a communist dictatorship. In 1960, the country was renamed the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and Communist control was retained for the next forty years. The period was shortly interrupted by the "Prague Spring" in 1968 in which the newly elected (Slovak) reformist communist party leader, Dubček, proposed slight political and economic reforms in order to create "socialism with a human face". Concerned with the developments, Soviet, Hungarian, Bulgarian, East German, and Polish troops invaded the country in August the same year and replaced the party leader. In November 1989, public protests known as the "Velvet Revolution" brought down the Communist Party and in 1990 the first democratic elections were organized. On January 1 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia proclaimed their independence.

Politics in the new era

The Czech Republic is a democratic republic. The president is elected by the members of the parliament (both cameras) for a five year period and may serve for maximum two terms. The president has limited powers, among them the right to veto legislation, appoint constitutional court judges, appoint the prime minister and to dissolve the parliament (under specific conditions). The prime minister serves as head of government.

On December 29, 1989, as leader of the Civic Forum, Václav Havel became the first president of Czechoslovakia by a unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly. After the free elections of 1990 he retained the presidency. The first democratic election organized within Czechoslovakia in 1990 was virtually a referendum on the old regime. Most opposition groups had joined in the Civic Forum, which won a landslide victory and the majority of the seats in the national assembly. In the 1992 election, the Civic Forum had split in several fractions. Vaclav Klaus, who became one of the most prominent figures in Czech politics, had established the liberal-conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS) that won the elections and formed a majority government together with the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and the Christian and Democratic Union - Czechoslovak People's Party (KDU-ČSL).

New elections for the Czech Republic were arranged in 1996 and while loosing the majority in the house, Klaus and his centre-right coalition remained in government. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) became the second largest party in parliament. After a financial scandal in 1997, the increasingly fragile minority government resigned. In the early elections that were organized in 1998, the ČSSD won the most votes while the ODS came in second after losing only about 2 percent points when compared to the 1996 election. The unexpected post-electoral opposition agreement between the ČSSD and the ODS stipulated a mutual cooperation between the two rivals and resulted in the formation of the minority government of the ČSSD. The ČSSD remained in office throughout the whole parliamentary term.

In the 2002 election, all pro-system parties - the ČSSD, the ODS and the electoral coalition partners of KDU-ČSL and US - lost seats. The success of the Communist Party (KSČM), which won 17 additional seats, was the greatest surprise. ČSSD and the Coalition finally signed an agreement and assumed the governmental offices.

Havel had been re-elected president in 1998, but left office after his second term ended in February 2003; Václav Klaus, one of his greatest political opponents, was elected his successor on February 28, 2003.

In December 2002, the Czech Republic was one of 10 nations that were formally invited to join the EU. A plebiscite on EU membership was held in the Czech Republic in June 2003. 77.3% voted in support of the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU, with a turnout of 55,2%. The country became a full member on 1 May 2004.

The June 2006 general election produced a stalemate with the two opposing camps holding exactly half of the parliament’s seats. Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek's Social Democrats took 32.32% of votes and 74 seats, but their Communist partners, who have been out of power since the 1989 "Velvet Revolution", won 12.81% (26 seats). Each camp therefore acquired exactly 100 of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. President Klaus finally appointed a centre-right government led by Mirek Topolanek of the ODS.

Sources:

Vlachová, Klára Plecitá and Mary Stegmaier. 2003. "The Chamber of Deputies election, Czech Republic 2002", Electoral Studies, Vol 22, pp 765-807.

Kopeckya, Petr and Cas Muddeb. 1999. "The 1998 parliamentary and senate elections in the Czech Republic", Electoral Studies, Vol 18, pp 415-423.