Date: Wed, 20 May 98 11:43:28 CDT
Subject: RNN / Czech far-right targets Roma, NATO in campaign
Article: 35341
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Czech far-right targets Roma, NATO in campaign

RNN Agency, 18 May 1998

Czech far-right Republicans have fired the opening shots in the campaign for June's election with controversial posters proclaiming the party's opposition to NATO and to programmes favouring Roma.

Other posters declare opposition to the return of Sudeten Germans, who were expelled from their homes in Czech territory after World War Two.

All other parliamentary parties, saying they were strapped for cash, agreed in February they would not use billboards in the campaign for the June 19–20 vote which is being held two years early after the collapse in November of former premier Vaclav Klaus's centre-right coalition.

Some analysts said the Republicans, who won eight percent of the vote and took 18 seats in the 200-seat lower house in the 1996 election, may be setting the agenda and could pick up extra votes with their posters which are plastered nationwide.

“It could have such an impact but…this is highly dependent on the action of the other parties. They have to take up the challenge and address some of the issues raised on the billboards,” said Jan Hartl, head of the STEM polling agency.

The Republicans are no strangers to controversy. Party leader Miroslav Sladek, whose face is on every poster, was acquitted on charges of spreading racial hatred in January after spending 17 days in custody on remand.

Sladek was widely reported to have shouted that it was a “pity we killed only a few Germans during the war” at a demonstration in January 1997 as German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Klaus were signing a declaration on Czech-German relations.

A Prague district court judge ruled that the statements made by Sladek did not violate Czech laws when considered in the full context of his speech. The Republicans' slogans, which include “Republicans reject NATO” and “Republicans against advanatges for Roma” touch on sensitive issues.

The Czech parliament last week gave its final backing to the country joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, although polls show only 50 percent support for membership.

And the standing of the 600,000 gypsy population hit the headlines last year when hundreds flocked to Britain and Canada to seek political asylum, saying they faced persecution.

Asylum has been granted in only a few cases.

Both President Vaclav Havel and the government have called on Czechs to improve relations with Roma, among whom unemployment is commonly 60 percent, compared with a national average of ten percent.

The government has discussed plans to set aside public sector positions for Roma, especially in the police force.

However, political analyst and presidential aide Jiri Pehe said there was no prospect of the Republicans gaining more than 10 percent of the vote in June and that there was no chance of a surge in support for the far-right.

“This is not a party which has a comprehensive programme,” Pehe said. “It is a political show, a political circus.”

He said that while the Republicans were strong in certain areas, such as the northern mining and industrial regions close to the German border, their support was patchy.

“The Republican leadership consists of people who do not appeal to the majority of the population here,” Pehe said.