Record number of Roma running in Czech EU election
Despite rising animosity toward the country’s minority Roma population – or perhaps because of it – there is now a record number of Roma running in the Czech EU elections.
Out of the 39 parties and political movements running for the elections in the Czech Republic, two are fully-fledged Roma parties with 11 candidates between them.
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Roma people have not had such a strong interest in taking active part in political life since 1990, a year after the Velvet Revolution and a time when everyone wanted a say.
Roma in the Czech Republic appear to be leading the political field compared to other eastern European countries.
No Romany party has registered for the European vote in Slovakia or in Hungary, both countries with strong Roma minorities.
There are two reasons for the Czech experience.
One, unlike the parliamentary vote where parties have to provide separate lists of candidates for each region, the EU vote is a one-list exercise.
That makes it both easier and less costly for any party to register and try their luck. The smaller ones particularly appreciate the system.
"The one list factor did play a role," says Stefan Tiser, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Party (SRP).
For the parliamentary vote last October, SRP lined up with the Green party but the Greens did not reach the 5 percent threshold.
"This time, our governing committee decided that we should try it on our own," Tiser explains.
For the Roma Democratic Party (RDS), the choice was even simpler: They already ran their own party lists in two regions last October.
The RDS' five candidates obtained 609 votes nation-wide, equal to 0.01 percent.
"I don't pipe-dream that we could make a break-through this time," says Miroslav Tancos, the party's leader, "but us politicians, we should be trying every time!"
Rise in anti-Roma sentiment
The second reason for the Roma alert is more serious.
During the last three years the country has witnessed rising violence by the majority population towards the Romany minority. It reached a peak last year when white Czechs marched against Romas in many regions.
While the marches were organised by small extremist groups, locals took to the streets to join with them in shouting "Gypsy bastards!" in front of Romany houses.
That was partly why, after two decades out of politics, Stefan Tiser went back into it. "People in ghettos started to beg me they need a party that will speak for them," he said.
Others confirm his experience.
"It is beyond doubt that especially the younger generation of Roma feels stirred up by the recent development in the country and want to engage in public affairs," says Martin Simacek, director at the governmental agency for social inclusion, which has long worked with Roma people.
The Equal Opportunities Party has nine candidates on its list, the Roma Democratic Party two.
The chances of both parties reaching at least 1.5 percent of the vote, which would secure them some financial assistance from the state, are very low.
Out of a total Czech population of around 10.5 million, the Romany population counts some 250,000 – although some estimates speak of almost 400,000.
The big problem is that 90 percent of Roma ignore voting booths.
"It's good they're trying anyway," says Jiri Dienstbier, the minister responsible for minorities.
Drahomir Radek Horvath, a Roma mediator and activist, is more critical.
The community would do better, he says, if its candidates presented themselves on mainstream party lists.
"An ethnically-defined party is a dead end," says Horvath. "Me, as a Roma, I would never vote for a Roma party because I’m interested in policies, not ethnicity."
The policies of the Roma parties are similar and basic: jobs for Romas, a bill on social housing, and fair access to schooling.
On Europe, both the chief of SRP and RDS think in very broad terms.
"Europe is good, she has class," says Miroslav Tancos (RDS). For him, the European Parliament offers another platform from where to discuss "the violation of the Roma's human rights in the Czech Republic".
Tiser (SRP), for his part, says his party "is of course for Europe".
"But some rules must change," he continues, "jobs must be given to our people, the Czech citizens. Only after that should we enroll foreigners."
Unlike Miroslav Tancos, Stefan Tiser knows what group the SRP would like to belong to should it make it to the European Parliament.
"The Greens and the Pirates. We would found a new group," he says.
Each to their own
When asked about possible alliances with Roma from other member states, both leaders keep their distance. It remains to be seen, they say.
Roma community insiders put this reticence down to the Romany elite not have sufficiently grasped the need for coalition building at the European level.
"Romany university students are very active in reaching their specific goals via European grants and funds," says Pavel Pecinka, editor-in-chief of the Czech Roma magazine Romano hangos.
"But I don't know of anybody of the elite who would concentrate on and look for a source of change in the European Romany scene in general," he adds.
This attitude is linked to the status of families and clans in Romany society. When important families hold one another in esteem, cooperation comes easily even across national borders. When there is indifference – or worse, outright disdain – among some groups, cooperation with the white majority is the preferred option.
The likelihood of a Roma faction in the European Parliament is slim.
It would take some years for the EU assembly to host a sufficient number of Roma MEPs – 25 MEPs from 7 member states are needed to form a group – and even then, political love between them would not be a given.
The European Parliament has already seen Roma MEPs – especially the young female duo from Hungary, Viktoria Mohacsi and Livia Jaroka – after the 2004 enlargement.
But they have both indicated that they found it more natural to seek allies based on politics rather than on ethnicity.