PRAGUE – As political parties in the Czech Republic vie for spots in the European legislature ahead of the June 5 and 6 elections, domestic political tensions are dominating the campaign.
More than 30 parties and political groupings are competing for the 22 seats allotted to the Czech Republic, but only a handful are expected to pass the 5-percent threshold.
The campaign has been marked by a lack of interest in “European” issues, raising the question for some of the whole point of the elections.
Take President Vaclav Klaus, known for his euro-skeptic views. He said this week the European elections were not necessary and that he would be happy sending national legislators to Brussels instead.
The party that Klaus founded, the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS), now holds nine seats in the European Parliament, the most of any Czech party.
In an early controversy, public television showed a campaign ad by a small, far-right party that promised a “final solution” to the “Gypsy problem.”
The resulting outcry ensured the commercial never got a second showing, though the National Party said “thanks” for all the publicity.
But that story was soon overshadowed by a new debacle, as Jiri Paroubek, leader of the left-of-center Social Democrats (CSSD), was greeted in the capital, Prague, with a hail of eggs thrown by a booing crowd.
What became known as the “egg war” started in mid-May when an egg hit Paroubek at a party event in the town of Kolin.
Tens of thousands then joined an “egg for Paroubek” campaign on Facebook.
Soon, eggs were flying at election meetings across the country, reaching a peak at the Prague event in late May, when hundreds hit Paroubek and other top Social Democrats.
That seemed to be too much even for the original egg-throwers. Last week they ended their Facebook campaign and symbolically surrendered their “weapons.”
Politics professor Vladimira Dvorakova of Prague's University of Economics says she found the whole affair shocking.
“For me the biggest shock wasn’t that this happened, but that leading politicians didn’t state outright that this is not acceptable, that disrupting meetings is something they don’t agree with,” Dvorakova said. “At the most, you heard things like ‘don’t do this, it could help Mr. Paroubek.’ That, for me, was just perverse, because it was like saying ‘if it harms him keep on doing it.’”
Dvorakova continued: “I think there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed regardless of whether the person is from one party or another.”
Prague voters seemed split on whether the incidents would hurt or help Paroubek’s party, or whether they were simply comical.
The egg-throwing was “not really appropriate, but I think people here have been pushed into a corner where their opinions are ignored. I would take it as a kind of cry for attention,” said Jana Laskova, who's voting Christian Democrat.
David Kalika, a graphic artist waiting in line at a transport office, said the egg-throwing campaign was “idiotic.” But, he added, "the CSSD didn’t manage the reaction, they didn't manage to use it to their advantage, so the situation turned against them."
Election Dress Rehearsal
The egg-throwing laid bare the tensions between the two main parties, who also have an eye on upcoming national elections in October.
The ODS blames the CSSD for triggering the fall of the ODS-led government mid-way through the Czechs’ EU presidency.
The CSSD in turn accuses the previous government of exacerbating the economic crisis and of pushing through reforms that have hit poorer people hardest.
The European elections are in many ways a dress rehearsal; Paroubek said success this weekend would give the ODS fresh impetus for October’s parliamentary polls.
Little wonder that broader European topics have been crowded out, says Jan Patek, a press attaché at the European Parliament’s information office in Prague.
“What we have witnessed in the last weeks in the Czech Republic is of course overshadowing the general information, and I’m afraid also overshadowing a serious election campaign by the political parties,” Patek said. “Seeing the billboards, seeing the discussions and the TV spots, you don’t really see and hear too many European topics, you hear rather the national politics that are relevant and even more relevant when we are coming closer to the national elections.”
In that, Patek says, the Czech Republic is really not much different from other EU countries.