The Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy in which political rights and civil liberties are generally respected. However, in recent years, the country has experienced several corruption scandals and political disputes that have hampered normal legislative activity. Illiberal rhetoric and the influence of powerful business entities in the political arena are increasingly visible.
- In March, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’s outbreak in the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Babiš announced inaccurate information about the number of COVID-19 testing sites opened by the government and declared that medical staff at testing sites were performing tests on everyone who had shown symptoms of the virus, which was false. Though the government later corrected Babiš’s announcements, the conflicting reports were an example the government’s lack of transparency around the public health crisis. By the end of the year, over 718,000 people tested positive for the virus, and over 11,500 people died, according to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).
- In October, the Interior Ministry proposed a legislative amendment that would allow officials to withhold information pertaining to crisis situations that they believe, if made public, would endanger the management of that crisis. Critics argued that this restriction of oversight would give authorities an excuse to hide sensitive information from the public.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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The president is the head of state but holds limited powers and is directly elected to up to two five-year terms. The January 2018 presidential election was considered credible. President Miloš Zeman of the Party of Civic Rights was reelected, defeating his opponent, Jiří Drahoš, in the second round of voting.
The prime minister is the head of government and holds most executive power. In December 2017, controversial billionaire Andrej Babiš of the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party was sworn in as prime minister, following elections that were held in accordance with international standards.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, are elected to four-year terms by proportional representation. The Senate, the upper chamber, which holds limited legislative power, has 81 members elected for six-year terms, with one-third up for election every two years.
The Babiš-led ANO won 78 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the October 2017 legislative elections, followed by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) with 25, and the populist, anti-immigration Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party with 22. The polls were generally well administered, and the results were broadly accepted by stakeholders.
Mainstream parties refused to cooperate with Babiš after his late 2017 appointment as prime minister, and he struggled to assemble a coalition. In July 2018, after almost nine months of negations, corruption allegations, and a vote of no confidence in January, ANO and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) with the support of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) formed a coalition government. Since then, the coalition has experienced several crises, with ČSSD threatening to leave the coalition multiple times.
Elections for 27 Senate seats were held in October 2020. The center-right opposition party Mayors and Independents (STAN) won the most seats (10). The elections were administered fairly, with public health measures implemented to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Opposition parties accused Prime Minister Babiš of delaying action on the coronavirus crisis out of fear that unpopular public health measures may decrease the coalition government’s support.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
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The electoral framework is robust and generally well implemented by the State Election Commission. However, the body does not always operate with transparency, and a 2017 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) needs-assessment mission expressed concern that its meetings were typically closed to the public and opposition representatives. The OSCE mission also criticized the decentralized procedures surrounding the maintenance of voter lists, which made the lists difficult to verify.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
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Political parties are free to form and operate. Since the 2013 elections, the establishment parties ODS and the ČSSD have lost support, and space has opened up for the populist ANO, anti-immigration and nationalist SPD, and liberal Czech Pirate Party.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
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Power rotates between parties regularly. The opposition holds a large majority in the Senate.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
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The influence of politically connected media outlets has been a growing concern since a significant controversy arose in 2017 involving the daily newspaper MF Dnes, which is among the assets Babiš placed in a trust to comply with 2016 conflict-of-interest legislation. Critics have accused him of using MF Dnes and another newspaper his trust owns, Lidove noviny, as tools to advance his political and business interests. In October 2019, Petr Kellner, the country’s wealthiest man, acquired the company that operates one of the most influential Czech television channels, TV Nova. Reports suggest Kellner has helped mobilize a network of experts and journalists to improve China’s image in the country, which he refutes.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
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By law, all citizens have full political rights and electoral opportunities. However, the Roma lack meaningful political representation. Women hold 45 of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 12 of the 81 seats in the Senate. However, women remain underrepresented in politics and public bodies generally.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
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Elected officials are duly installed and generally able to craft and implement policy. Political polarization and the controversy surrounding Babiš contributed to drawn-out negotiations that left the country without a governing coalition through the first half of 2018. In addition to the ČSSD threatening to leave the government multiple times in 2019, the prime minister’s escalating dispute with President Zeman deepened the nation’s political instability.
In late August and early September 2020, president of the Senate Miloš Vystrčil visited Taiwan despite the disapproval of both the coalition government and the president. The visit was met with pressure and threats from the Chinese government. In response, President Zeman announced that he would not include Vystrčil in foreign policy briefings.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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Corruption remains a problem in Czech politics, but institutions have generally been responsive to corruption allegations and scandals. In 2017, Czech police and the European Anti-Fraud Office began an investigation into Prime Minister Babiš, following allegations of improprieties, known as the Stork’s Nest fraud scandal, regarding the disbursement of European Union (EU) subsidy funds to one of his firms Agrofert, which Babiš still had de facto ownership over, according to a leaked 2018 European Commission legal opinion. The scandal was not resolved in 2020.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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The government often fails to proactively publish information about procurement processes, public officials’ salaries, and public spending. Members of the public must request a time-sensitive password to view asset declarations online. In 2018, new legislation came into force requiring that the “ultimate beneficial owners” of companies and trust funds be disclosed in a register. Although the register is not available to the public, law enforcement agencies, the courts, and several other entities can access it.
In March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’s outbreak in the country, Prime Minister Babiš announced inaccurate information about the number of COVID-19 testing sites opened by the government and declared incorrectly that medical staff at testing sites were performing tests on everyone who had shown symptoms of the virus. Government reports later corrected Babiš’s announcements.
In October 2020, the Interior Ministry proposed a legislative amendment that would allow officials to withhold information pertaining to crisis situations that they believe, if made public, would endanger the management of that crisis. Critics argued that this restriction of oversight and would give authorities an excuse to not share sensitive information with the public.
|Are there free and independent media?
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The media operate relatively freely, and the government does not place undue restrictions on content. Legislation protects private ownership of media outlets, but concerns remain about the extent to which the media is controlled by wealthy business figures and its potential impact on journalists’ ability to investigate commercial interests.
Although Prime Minister Babiš placed his significant media holdings in a trust, the trust is controlled in part by his close associates. Critics have accused both of his newspapers of biased coverage, claiming that they are being used as tools to advance the prime minister’s political interests. Another Czech billionaire, Petr Kellner, announced in October 2019 his upcoming acquisition of Central European Media Enterprises (CME), which owns 30 television channels broadcasting to five countries. Among the most influential television stations in the Czech Republic is TV Nova, now operated by CME. Analysts note that media outlets serve as a means of influence in the region, and although Kellner denies any political motives, his acquisition of CME has raised questions about his influence on public discourse.
In November 2020, the Czech Television Council, a portion of which was newly elected, controversially dismissed its Supervisory Commission, raising questions about the public broadcaster’s independence.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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The government generally upholds freedom of religion. Tax benefits and financial support are provided to registered religious groups. The state has initiated a process to return land confiscated from churches by the former communist regime, which will take place over the next 30 years.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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Academic freedom is respected. Ceremonial presidential approval is required for academic positions.
In November 2019, reports emerged that four faculty members at Prague’s Charles University had received secret Chinese payments, prompting an investigation and the firing of the faculty members involved. Analysts have voiced concerns that China might use its ties with prominent politicians to build a foothold in Czech academia.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
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People are generally able to express controversial or political opinions without fear of surveillance or retribution.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
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Freedom of assembly is upheld in practice, and demonstrations take place frequently and without incident. In 2019, demonstrations in Prague with approximately 300,000 participants demanded Prime Minister Babiš’s resignation over corruption allegations. Protests in 2020 focused on COVID-19 restrictions; police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters in October in Prague.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
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Tens of thousands of registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in the country, generally without interference from the government or security forces. However, the environment for civil society has grown increasingly antagonistic as the government and its allies have harshly criticized some outspoken NGOs.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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Trade unions and professional associations function freely, though they are weak in practice. Workers have the right to strike, though this right is limited for essential public employees, such as hospital workers and air traffic controllers.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
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The judiciary is largely independent, though its complexity and multilayered composition have led to slow delivery of judgments. In 2019, the appointment of Marie Benešová as Justice Minister raised concerns over the independence of the judiciary. She took office in April of that year, following Minister Jan Kněžínek’s resignation one day after police investigators proposed charging Babiš with subsidy fraud.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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The rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. Despite corruption and political pressure within law enforcement agencies, the office of the public prosecutor has become more independent in recent years.
However, the recent investigation of Prime Minister Babiš and his nomination for Justice Minister, Marie Benešová, showed that political interests may interfere with due process. In September 2019, President Zeman openly stated he would use his constitutional authority to dismiss potential criminal charges of fraud against the prime minister.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
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The Czech Republic is free from war in insurgencies. However, prisons are overcrowded and at times unsanitary.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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The 2009 Antidiscrimination Act provides for equal treatment regardless of sex, race, age, disability, belief, or sexual orientation. However, high-level public officials—including the Public Defender of Rights appointed in February 2020—have made insensitive comments that some critics have called discriminatory. The Roma face discrimination in the job market and significantly poorer housing conditions than non-Roma, as well as occasional threats and violence from right-wing groups. Many Roma children attend ethnically segregated schools. The COVID-19 pandemic deepened inequality particularly for low-income families with more than one child and Roma students, as classes were moved online and required stable internet connection and often multiple computers per household.
Women are underrepresented at the highest levels of business. According to data from the European Commission, the gender pay gap in the Czech Republic is one of the largest in the EU.
Anti-Muslim attitudes have increased in the wake of the refugee crisis confronting European states, and the country’s legal battle with the EU about accepting refugee quotas. The populist and anti-immigration SPD continued to spread Islamophobic rhetoric characterizing Islam as “incompatible with freedom and democracy.” These positions are episodically approved by some of the highest representatives of state.
Asylum seekers are routinely detained, and conditions in detention centers are generally poor. Only 1 in 10 applicants were granted asylum in 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
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Individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education. In 2020, the government twice restricted movement due to a surge in coronavirus cases, though the measures were in line with public health guidance.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
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The rights to own property and operate private businesses are established in the law and upheld in practice.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
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Authorities generally do not restrict social freedoms, though same-sex marriages are not legally recognized. While gender discrimination is legally prohibited, sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be fairly common.
Parliament has yet to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Reports show that only a small number of perpetrators of gender-based violence face criminal charges.
During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, organizations supporting victims of gender-based violence reported a 42 percent increase in calls received, and an almost 50 percent increase in contact with victims, who were often forced to stay in the same household as their abusers.
In September 2019, the government cut funding for NGOs providing support for survivors of gender-based and domestic violence by 70 percent. This severely limited counseling services and legal support to those who have experienced gender-based violence.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
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Human trafficking remains a problem as organized criminal groups use the country as a source, transit, and destination point; women and children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The government has made serious efforts to fund protective services and other resources for survivors and to prosecute perpetrators.