May 15, 2006

Graft takes center stage in Czech election

By Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - In setting up his promotion company in
the Czech Republic, Tomas did not think twice about paying his
first bribe.

The young Czech was registering a car he bought for his new
business and slipped 200 crowns ($8.50) among documents at a
vehicle registration office.

"My partner told me it is better to add a sweetener," he
said, declining to give his surname.

Whether or not he needed to pay off an official to get his
papers in order, the move reflects the widely held perception
in the otherwise successful and fast-growing European Union
member that bribes are simply part of life.

From multimillion dollar public tenders to referees at
local league volleyball games, Czechs expect to pay a bribe.

In recent months graft revelations have become commonplace
on newspaper front pages, turning corruption into a major theme
in campaigning ahead of a June 2-3 election in the ex-Communist
central European state.

An opinion poll in February by the SC&C agency for Czech
Television showed Czechs regard corruption as the main problem
they face. SC&C also found a third of Czechs have paid a bribe,
and few seem fazed by having to do so.

Bribery has even hit the top soccer league, with more than
a dozen referees and club officials being convicted for match
rigging. Most of them can still appeal against the rulings.

Leaked police wiretaps of their phone conversations, filled
with references to bribes nicknamed "carps" and "apples," were
turned into a play that became a hit with theatre-goers.


Throughout eastern Europe voters have been making
governments pay for scandal-tainted administrations. Romania
and Poland have both seen recent changes in government and
corruption was a major campaign battleground.

Andrea Krnacova, head of the Czech branch of corruption
watchdog Transparency International, said the Czechs were
paying the price for negligence since the end of communism,
especially in 1998-2002 when the leftist Social Democrats ruled
under a pact with the rightist opposition which kept them in
power in return for various perks.

"We are getting the bill now for such irresponsible
behavior," she said, adding that economic and administrative
reforms in the Baltic countries and Slovakia showed it was
possible to lay the ground for better government.

Transparency International rates the Czech Republic the
47th least corrupt place as perceived by businessmen and
analysts looking at the public sector. Poland and Latvia were
the only worse-ranked EU countries.

A survey of 50 Czech managers commissioned by Transparency
International revealed public sector corruption was the worst.

"Public tenders are completely opaque. Most managers know
of corruption in this field," the GfK agency which conducted
the survey said.

Another Transparency International study estimated the
country wasted at least 32 billion Czech crowns ($1.46 billion)
of public funds -- about 1 percent of gross domestic product --
in 2004 because of poor management of public tenders.


Mainstream political parties have been campaigning on an
anti-corruption ticket but their pledges ring hollow with much
of the electorate given their history of sleaze.

The state-funded CVVM institute said 70 percent of Czechs
thought graft had worsened last year, while only 3 percent saw
an improvement.

"Corruption is enormous everywhere. I think people have it
in themselves, and it will take a generation to change," said
Marie Sarova, a 68-year-old pensioner.

"It is across all of the political parties, it is
impossible to say who is better or worse."

But the spate of recent affairs is hurting the ruling
Social Democrats most following the resignation of Prime
Minister Stanislav Gross last year after he came under public
pressure to explain how he funded the purchase of his luxury

His case has been shelved with no charges brought, but the
damage has lingered.

Scandals swirling around the Social Democrats should be a
boon for the opposition, but the rightist Civic Democrats,
leading opinion surveys, have not been able to distance
themselves completely from scandal.

Their government collapsed in 1997 after revelations that a
businessman who bought a state company used false names to hide
his donations.

"Official politics is becoming a special branch of an
opaque business where corruption is rampant," political
scientist Michal Klima wrote.

Disillusion with the main parties has boosted the election
chances of the Green Party, which boasts an anti-corruption
platform supported by the fact it has never been in parliament
and is thus scandal-free.

Support for the group has climbed to around 10 percent in
recent months -- at the expense of both the Social Democrats
and Civic Democrats -- and it may play a kingmaker role after
the elections as polls suggest neither of the main parties will
be able to govern alone.

"We have a lot to do in cutting down enormously on
corruption," Green Party chief Martin Bursik told Reuters in an
interview. "Corruption is the trademark of the Czech Republic."