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EU: Czechs Head To Polls To Vote In Referendum, With A Few Twists

The weekend's almost here. That means there must be a referendum on European Union membership looming somewhere in Central Europe. This time, it's the Czech Republic's turn. It's a familiar story in many ways -- Czechs are mainly pro-EU, although voter turnout may be sluggish. But there are also differences. The Czechs have no minimum threshold to validate their referendum. And they have a president who isn't saying how he'll vote -- and who has warned of the dangers of a centralist EU.

Prague, 12 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Among the tourist throngs on Prague's Old Town Square, a few demonstrators gathered recently to say "no" to the Czech Republic joining the European Union.

"This bankrupt government is pushing us into the EU. What kind of EU is it? A bad EU! Again I ask you, 'Say no!' Long live an independent Czech state! Long live the Czech Republic! Thank you," said one speaker.

It wasn't much of a crowd, just a few people with handmade banners and cheap fliers. By contrast, a pro-EU concert a few days later attracted a bigger audience.

And that's roughly how things are expected to go tomorrow and Saturday (13-14 June) in the Czech Republic's first-ever referendum. Surveys predict around 75 percent will vote in favor of EU membership, with only a few naysayers among the population.

Still, polls also show many people feel they need more information about what EU entry will bring. Turnout may be under 60 percent. And some voters admitted this week they don't know where or how to cast their ballots.

If the Czech government's pro-EU campaign has failed to excite, perhaps it's because there's a sense of inevitability about it all. Two neighbors, Poland and Slovakia, just voted "yes" in their own referendums. And the Czech Republic's other two neighbors, Germany and Austria, are already EU members.

Voters interviewed by RFE/RL on the streets of the Czech capital, Prague, expressed a variety of viewpoints.

"I intend to take part and vote yes because I think there's no other way out. [Standards of living] will stay the same for a while, but then there will be a progressive trend for the better," said one man.

"It's not for me, not for poor people. They'll be as badly off as they were before. I won't be voting. I think it would bring more disadvantages. I'm not going to be well off," said another man.

"I will go to vote for one reason only -- there's no other way. We would be isolated, under a kind of trade and financial embargo," said a third man.

Unlike in other candidate countries, the Czech referendum is valid no matter now many voters show up at the polls. But a low turnout could be embarrassing.

RFE/RL asked Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla what turnout he expects and what consequences, if any, there would be for the government if it's low.

"I'm convinced that turnout will be bigger than 50 percent. It's very important for as many people as possible to take part, not for the referendum's legitimacy -- because the legitimacy of the referendum comes from the basis of the law -- but for the active participation of people in this great vote. I'm convinced that the bigger the turnout, the firmer and more convincing the decision will be. But I can't speculate on what consequences a certain percentage of turnout would have," Spidla said.

Still, Czech political scientist Zdenek Zboril told RFE/RL a low turnout could spell trouble for the government, a none-too-strong coalition of center-left and center-right parties whose main point of agreement has been EU membership.

It's already feeling the heat from labor unions threatening strikes later this month against austerity measures as part of public-finance reform. And the main opposition party has said the government should call a vote of confidence if turnout is low.

"There could be two situations," Zboril said. "Either the coalition collapses because of public-finance reform but with the referendum result as an excuse, or there could be the breakup of the Social Democrats, a party that has internal problems. Some of its groups could use the low turnout to resolve [the party's] internal problems. In both cases, it's bad news because no one ever wins internal party squabbles. It always weakens the party. And if the coalition runs into trouble, then everyone loses."

The Czech referendum is different in another chief aspect -- the Euroskepticism of the president, Vaclav Klaus. He has urged people to go to the polls but has refused to say how he himself will vote.

Yesterday, he warned of the dangers of European centralism and said that perhaps Czechs need more time to enjoy their independence before joining the EU. His comments contrast sharply with those of his predecessor and longtime rival Vaclav Havel, who is firmly in favor of EU membership.

Zboril said Klaus also doesn't want to be associated with the over-the-top optimism of the government's campaign. But he may still have a surprise up his sleeve. "I expect that just before the referendum he will come with a new statement, say on Friday morning, maybe a surprise statement. Because he's a big tactician and strategist and won't waste the chance to say something directed at a domestic or foreign audience. Also, he isn't a Euroskeptic but a 'Eurorealist.' And I would subscribe to his statement that joining the EU isn't a marriage of love but of convenience -- feelings don't play a role," Zboril said.

First results, expected on 14 June, will show how many of Klaus' compatriots feel strongly enough about that marriage -- and how many are willing to give it their blessing.