Prague voters skeptical on national vote

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Prague Post on June 5, 2002.

In this month's national elections, Michal Nohejl will vote ODS - reluctantly.

Though Nohejl grants that the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) may not be the country's most attractive political force, he says "they're the best we have at the moment."

Noheijl is not the only Prague voter dissatisfied with the options. Citizens here go to the polls June 14-15 in an election billed by public opinion samplings as a tight contest between Vaclav Klaus' resurgent ODS and the ruling Social Democrats (CSSD). A casual survey of local residents suggests that while most will vote, few are interested in the election itself.

"I vote because it's the right thing to do," says Nohejl, a 35-year-old city worker. But politicians, he adds, "promise too much."

The ODS, for example, has pledged to reform the welfare system. It has also appealed to Czech nationalism - even suggesting tightening immigration laws - in an apparent effort to woo European Union skeptics.

"I understand they have to make populist promises if they want to win," Nohejl says. "I don't even expect them to keep those promises. I'd be happy if they approximate them."

Of 16 citizens interviewed for this report, only three said they wouldn't vote at all. Some said they would cast ballots to ensure that a party they disliked did not gain the upper hand.

Voter participation has become a crucial European issue after French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed xenophobe and anti-Semite, made a strong showing in first-round presidential voting in April. Voter absenteeism played a large part in his performance, raising eyebrows. Le Pen was crushed in a runoff.

But if casual conversation is a clue, candidates here might have to worry more about ennui than absenteeism. Barbora Siposova, 25, for example, says she has little interest in politics but will participate in the tally because "voting is important."

She may vote for the ODS because, she says, "Of the possible choices, they're the least evil." She did not elaborate.

A recent survey in the daily Lidove Noviny suggested that voters were almost entirely uninterested in the current crop of political personalities, many of them familiart from the last national vote in 1998. The paper said a quarter of the respondents in a nationwide poll simply wanted better living standards. The Czech economy is growing, but unemployment still hovers around 9 percent.

Another poll, by the Center for the Research of Public Opinion (CVVM), revealed that 60 percent of the public was unhappy with the current political order. That unhappiness emerged in interviews.

"You really have to kick all politicians in the ass, " said Martina Skodova, 28. She plans to back the Freedom Union, which, with the Christian Democrats, forms the center-right Coalition.

"Everybody promises everything to help get them elected," she says. "I'm not really sure if it makes a difference who gets elected."

A 43-year-old cook named Karel, who asked that his last name not be used, said that if he voted - probably for the ODS - it would be to keep the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) from power. The Communists, who have considerable rural support, rank third or fourth in current polls. "Forty years of [communism] was enough," he says.

But Karel admits his views of the role of voting have changed: In the 1990s, he says, he voted because he thought he could make a difference. "

But politicians cannot change anything," he says, echoing a common theme. Although several urban voters expressed displeasure at the KSCM, they are not the only party that voters hope to lecture through the ballot box. Tomas and Veronika Havelkovi are annoyed with both the ODS and the CSSD. Tomas said he doesn't trust big-party leaders. Veronika agreed.

"I feel more secure with the smaller parties," she says, "because of the support the ODS gave the CSSD."

Since 1998, the CSSD has governed with the ODS under a controversial power-sharing pact known as the opposition agreement. Voters who dislike all the options have grown cynical and decided that staying home is the best option.

"I know what the outcome will be: The ODS will win. I don't need to vote," says Vladimir Kosler, 34. "It doesn't really matter who wins anyway. It's good for business if the ODS wins, but they can all be bribed."

For bartender David Turynsky, 30, politics is an unworthy enterprise. "I don't trust the entire system," he says. He wants to get rid of the parties and advocates "self-governing."

Vladislav Hynek sounded a more hopeful note. Asked if he would vote, he quickly answered, "yes, for sure."

How would he make a choice? "You have to find the best party based on their programs and find the ideas you most agree with," says Hynek, 27, who has already voted twice in the 1990s. "It's the only way to change things," he said. "If you don't go and vote, nothing will ever be different."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

Other Clips