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Czech Republic: Voters Cast Ballots In Local And Senate Elections

Prague, 13 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time this year, Czech voters are going to the polls. Following last spring's elections to the lower house of parliament, voters today and Saturday will be asked to elect new local councils. In addition, one-third of the 81 seats in the upper house of parliament (Senate) are being contested.

The Senate came into existence two years ago, having been inserted in the constitution at the time of the establishment of the Czech Republic nearly four years earlier and over the objections of numerous politicians who considered a second chamber superfluous.

Run-off elections for the Senate will be held next week in those districts where no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

The two largest parties -- the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) -- are ideological opponents. However, a pact between the two makes CSSD's current minority government possible and assures ODS the speakership of the Senate after the elections. And if the two win enough Senate seats, they will likely follow through on their common goal of amending election laws to end the proportional representation system in races for the more powerful lower house. This would make it more difficult for smaller parties to win seats in parliament.

Most of the media attention has been concentrated on Prague where three Senate districts, the city council and local councils are up for grabs. In the Czech capital, campaign posters, slogans and graffiti rather than issues or personalities have defined the spirit of the campaign.

The most controversial element has been a giant ODS billboard of its chairman, speaker of the lower house of parliament Vaclav Klaus. The billboard has been erected on a highly visible site that during the 1950's was the base of the world's largest statue of Stalin. Klaus' face is shown in full color while the face of his erstwhile opponent, Social Democrat (CSSD) Prime Minister Milos Zeman, is barely visible to the left in ghostly shades of gray. Neither is a candidate in the voting -- they appear as symbols of their parties.

Local officials in Prague's 7th district, where the billboard is located, say it was erected without a building permit and have demanded its removal. Strong winds last week twice damaged it. But each time workers quickly put it back up.

The ODS' apparent intention was to remind voters how far Klaus had led the country out of its Stalinist past when he served first as finance minister then prime minister from 1989-97. It also apparently sought to suggest CSSD represents some sort of a threat of a return to pre-1989 practices.

However, this interpretation appears to have been lost on many voters. ODS, and Klaus in particular, refuse to explain the symbolism.

The Klaus billboard has angered many Praguers, including die-hard ODS supporters, who say they consider it to be in poor taste.

In the words of one politically active (ODS) TV talk show host, speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, "erecting the Klaus billboard where Stalin once stood and the absence of known and trustworthy candidates on the ballot are so outrageous" that she says she will not vote this weekend, adding "there is no choice."

In the Czech Republic, there is no direct election of mayors or the president. Town and city council members elect the mayors, just as MPs elect the president. In Prague, Mayor Jan Koukal of the ODS is being challenged chiefly by former Environment Minister Martin Bursik, known for being outspoken in his criticism of ODS policies. Bursik is backed by a coalition of four parties, known as the "Union for Prague."

Last weekend, Koukal opened the extension of a new metro line. Bursik staged a more modest counter event at one of the stations on the new line that cannot be opened for service because of a shortage of finances to complete construction.

Koukal and Bursik are facing each other in an electoral district in southeastern Prague. Due to the voting system, both the winner and the loser will probably be elected to the city council, which in turn will elect a mayor. Thus, even if Bursik beats Koukal this weekend, the new city council could still elect Koukal if the ODS maintains control of the city council through victories in Prague's other voting districts.

The Social Democratic Party, although the strongest party in the lower house of parliament, has virtually no chance of winning any of the three Senate seats in Prague. In this year's parliamentary elections, it ran third in the Czech capital, winning support from only about one in five voters.

Prague is the strongest bastion of support for both the ODS and the center-right Freedom Union (US). The ODS currently controls all but one of the capital's seven Senate seats, including one held by Mayor Koukal. But Koukal has earned the wrath of many Praguers by his failure to resolve endemic problems such as traffic, parking, overcharging by taxi drivers and charges that the city unfairly favors business over residents, such as in landmarks' preservation.

Koukal's Senate seat is also up for a vote, and his chief opponent there is a former ODS member, ex-interior minister and dissident, Jan Ruml, who leads the US. Neither man lives in the contested district.

Koukal has sought to profit from the anger many ODS supporters still harbor against Ruml, who led a move last year to oust then-Prime Minister Klaus before leaving the ODS. One poster shows Koukal with a ghostly image of Ruml over his left shoulder and a signed quote from Klaus, which reads: "Someone has been a disappointment but there is someone to lean on -- Jan Koukal..."

The campaign in Prague has had its nastier side.

Incumbent Senate candidate Milan Kondr falsely claimed that a hospital run by a challenger, former Health Minister Zuzana Roithova, has huge debts when in fact the hospital is making a profit.

In another case, Praguers awoke one morning to discover that most of the billboards for city council incumbent Michal Hvizdala had been doctored and no longer read "100 Percent Commitment for Prague" -- "100 percent" now read "four percent." Few people understood the point until Hvizdala explained to a TV reporter that "four percent" appeared to imply that he is among the 4 percent of the population that is gay.