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The pandemonium of politics

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On Friday night, the first night of the two-day Czech presidential election, we gathered with my neighbors at the local bowling alley. Ostensibly, we were there to celebrate Jan’s 40th birthday. After two rounds of light-hearted bowling, we sat at a long table, couple by couple, enjoying a few Pilsners and slices of birthday cake. However, conversation quickly turned to the ongoing two-day election and soon the neighborhood was involved in a rowdy decision of the pros and cons of the various top candidates.

All the Czechs at the table, which excluded a Slovakian, a Brit and me, had a strong opinion about the ongoing election. Since only Jan had actually voted, everyone else was trying to convince his or her neighbors to vote for their preferred candidate. This election would mark the first time in history that Czechs could directly elect their own president. Perhaps the Czechs were more passionate about voting this round because they knew their vote would count. It was also an election with nine valid candidates, several of whom were well-known public figures; there was no clear-cut leader.

Previously, the Czechs elected their president through parliamentary elections. However, a call for increased citizen participation and a more “open democracy” came as a result of political scandals and claims of government corruption during the 2008 presidential election. From the tone of the adults at our table, it was clear that Czechs weren’t blind to the notion that these elections could repeat the scandals of the past. Yet some saw hope in the new direct election system and perhaps in the unlikely palette of prospective candidates.

International newspapers described the colorful line-up of candidates: “a tough-talking, heavy-smoking, former communist” (Miloš Zeman); “a tattooed composer” (Vladimír Franz); and “the Prince of Schwarzenberg” (Karel Schwarzenberg), just to name a few. This year the election had become something that even Anna Lee had an opinion about. Although initially she wanted one of the two female candidates to win, primarily on the basis of their gender, she then switched gears and said if she could vote, she’d vote for the man who owned his own castles. Mostly, she was thrilled that the elections were going to be held in her school, in the very classroom where her after-school program met. When Radek stopped by her school on Saturday morning to cast his vote, she pounded him with questions about the voting process and who he’d voted for.

Never does my intelligence seem as inadequate as when I’m trying to discuss politics in Czech. Before Anna Lee’s natural curiosity sparked my own interest, I knew little about the specific personalities, other than recognizing the unusual physical persona of Franz, as someone whose face had once caught my eye at a theater performance with Oliver. Caught my eye, because his entire face and much of the rest of his body is tattooed.

Although I have long-term residency here, granted through my marriage to Radek, I’m not, nor likely to ever become, a Czech citizen. And, without citizenship, I don’t have a legal vote in the country’s political affairs. I am interested in what’s going on in Czech politics, but I often feel that I don’t have the background to really understand the issues. This was the case on Friday night; I sat back and listened as our neighbors debated the pros and cons of different candidates.

When the discussion turned to talks of President Klaus’s controversial leaving-office act of amnesty, an event he likened to giving the Czech country a “fresh start” on the 20th anniversary of its independent existence, our neighbors’ conversations became more heated. One neighbor half-joked that he’d bought a gun to protect his family when all the prisoners were released. Another neighbor couldn’t believe that anyone really cared whether the president released victims of petty crimes, suggesting that most of the prisoners would be back in jail soon enough. Still, another cited the problems of loopholes in the Czech legal system which were only accentuated by Klaus’ act.

Klaus’s amnesty act supposedly cleared one-quarter of the total number of prisoners (more than 6,000) from the country’s jails, and his decision was made by invoking his presidential right, without consultation with parliaments and the court system. The more controversial part of his amnesty act involved releasing defendants from proceedings that have been ongoing for more than eight-years (with less than 10 years to serve if convicted). This category included a number of large-scale embezzlement and fraud cases dating from the “lawless” post-Communist 1990s.

As the public debate continues, I’ve read articles about NGOs speaking out against the amnesty. There were even public protests where mayors and other officials removed the president’s picture from their offices to signal their disapproval. While parliament and constitutional courts have challenged Klaus’ decision, the legal implications have not yet been settled. In the meantime, I have also seen a few examples of the Czech sense of wry humor, like Bernard brewery’s billboard advertising the benefits of drinking Bernard when the nation’s gone crazy from amnesty.

Although the controversy doesn’t give the country a very favorable impression of the president’s final days in office, at least it’s making the news, nationally and even internationally, so that perhaps any future amnesty acts will be granted in a less-publicly divisive manner. The run-off for the new president will be held January 25 and 26 between Zeman and Schwarzenberg. I can’t vote, but I hope all my Czechs neighbors will, showing me and their fellow countrymen, that the first step in being eligible to complain or praise, act or react, comes once you’ve cast your vote.

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