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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 19:22 GMT 20:22 UK
Freebies colour dull Czech poll
Two people sitting beneath an ODS poster
The election campaign has failed to rouse voters

A large queue has formed around the tent dishing out free beer and goulash.


The campaign may seem to be boring... but in fact it's perhaps the most important election we've had since 1990

Jiri Pehe
Former Havel advisor
A mix of loyal voters, hecklers, and just curious passers-by, as well as a few local homeless people, are waiting in line under the canvass bearing the logo of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

Then a jazz band starts playing A Wonderful World, some people in the crowd begin to clap, and it's clear that the former conservative Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, has arrived.

It has been a long campaign, but he is still in fighting mood - telling the crowd that only the ODS will defend Czech national interests as the country negotiates entry to the European Union.

Significantly dull

This is a curious election.

Vaclav Klaus
Five years ago Mr Klaus's career seemed to be over when he was forced to resign
It will determine the government that's likely to take the country into the EU, and the parliament that will choose the successor to President Vaclav Havel next year.

But it has failed to excite the voters - and the media has dubbed it the most boring election since the fall of communism.

"The campaign may seem to be boring simply because it's devoid of any real contents, but in fact it's perhaps the most important election we've had since 1990," says Jiri Pehe, a former advisor to Mr Havel.

"Klaus is a threat to our membership of the EU. He's playing a demagogical game with the voters.

"He says we have no alternative to the EU, but he never fails to mention a list of grievances with it: that it's bureaucratic, socialist, suffers a democracy deficit - and that we will dissolve in it like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee."

Same old faces

Mr Klaus is running neck-and-neck with the ruling Social Democrats to win the election.

But even if he loses, he could be crucial to forming a new government - or even become the next president.

That could be his price for supporting a Social Democrat government, and some observers believe nothing would please him more than to pick up the keys to Prague Castle from his old adversary, Vaclav Havel.

The Social Democrat leader Vladimir Spidla has clashed with Mr Klaus in heated pre-election TV debates, telling him: "You failed as prime minister. Your government left the country in crisis."

But Mr Spidla may have to work with Mr Klaus if he fails to put a working majority together in parliament with his preferred partners, the Christian Democrats and the liberal Freedom Union.

So the elections will probably be followed by long and complex negotiations between politicians - something that leaves many voters cynical.

The proverbial feeling that "whoever you vote for, the government always gets in" is widespread.

Parliament will be filled with many of the same old faces that have sat there since the fall of communism.

Sex and Socialism

But despite the apathy, a high turnout of about 75% is expected, and parties are pulling out the stops to win last-minute votes.

A communist candidate recently enlisted topless models to assist at a campaign meeting.

Scene of Prague showing castle and Charles Bridge
Mr Klaus could end up with the keys to Prague castle
Other parties have signed up leading Czech pop stars to perform at open-air concerts-cum-rallies.

There has also been some dirt - with a pornographic magazine publishing lurid allegations about the sex life of Freedom Union leader Hana Marvanova, one of the few women in high-level politics here.

For its part, the ODS has adopted a new slogan to win over the waverers: 'Stop Socialism, the Nation votes for Klaus.'

Back at the ODS rally, Mr Klaus's combative talk brings sporadic applause.

"I will vote ODS," says a grey-haired man munching on a grilled sausage.

"You need to be tough with the EU, to get the best possible conditions for joining."

But not everyone is convinced.

"I voted for the ODS last time, but I won't do it again," says another bystander.

"I don't know who I'll vote for."

Indeed, nearly 20% of the electorate has yet to make up its mind.

Winning their hearts and minds could be the key to victory.

See also:

04 Jun 02 | Europe
28 Feb 02 | Europe
20 Feb 02 | Europe
25 Dec 01 | Europe
27 Feb 02 | Country profiles
27 Feb 02 | Country profiles
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