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August 15, 2018
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Former Czech Human Rights Minister: PM is abandoning the fight against poverty

25.11.2016 19:05
Džamila Stehlíková was the Czech Republic's first-ever Minister for Human Rights and Minorities. (PHOTO:  WestGuru, Wikimedia Commons)
Džamila Stehlíková was the Czech Republic's first-ever Minister for Human Rights and Minorities. (PHOTO: WestGuru, Wikimedia Commons)

Czech Television has focused very carefully and in detail on the past eight years of efforts to achieve social inclusion in the Czech Republic in a recent installment of its 90' program. Together with the current director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Radek Jiránek, I was briefly involved in the program's very cultivated, expert debate of this issue.

As I was traveling back home, though, I was overcome by the concern that the time for this kind of effective, substantive policy for the fight against poverty, which actually will save our money and that of future generations, has already passed. Why?

The social inclusion project in the Czech Republic has reached a fateful crossroads. Any basic reform, including the fight against poverty, needs political bravery and will.

Czech PM Sobotka took up this reform from the cabinets that preceded him, but today he is abandoning it. The PM has dismissed a crucial person in the outgoing Human Rights Minister, saying that while the incumbent never made any errors, he apparently is no longer necessary.

By dismissing Jiří Dienstbier, Sobotka is denying the program of a fair, inclusive society that has always been a basic pillar of social democracy, a party with a political tradition of 130 years. As is his custom, the PM has succumbed to the pressure placed on him by Czech President Zeman and his "fifth column" inside the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), which wants to change the subject - this faction is opportunistic, populist, and anti-Sobotka.

Currently they are dictating to Sobotka that he must throw away the liberal "orange ethos" of the party and begin copying both Czech Finance Minister Babiš and his ANO party's empty program as well as Zeman's populism. In his attempt to stay PM as long as possible, Sobotka has just continually backed down, selling out the values of the 1989 transition in his foreign policy by accommodating China, and now denying the necessity of human rights values and inclusion as well.

By betraying its own program, however, the ČSSD will lose some of its usual "tribal" supporters and will have difficulty winning new ones, because voters responding to populist slogans will not vote Social Democrat, but will go right to the ANO movement. Czech MP Jeroným Tejc, who is heading the pro-Zeman faction at the ČSSD, is one of the "putschists" who met with the President at his residence without informing Sobotka, and who recently declared that we must "beef up our solidarity with those who are responsible, not with those who just want to take."

The incoming Human Rights Minister Jan Chvojka, after meeting with the President, told the press that he wanted to do "many things differently from his predecessor" and that "human rights belongs to everybody irrespective of ethnicity of gender" - as if Dienstbier had ever alleged otherwise. This is populism à la Čunek, à la Trump - it does not directly allege anything specific, but insinuates that something isn't in order and that everything therefore must necessarily be altered, that the work done up to this point must be thrown out, that we must toughen up, point the finger at somebody, intimidate people, facilitate those voters who have an appetite for cursing... and that's all.

Populism displays a target for people to release their rage at, and it generates votes - but then it offers nothing else whatsoever, it does not solve any problems for good, but lets them grow and then hands the time bomb thus created down to our children. By succumbing to this pressure, social inclusion has now become the Cinderella of Sobotka's Government, which no longer has anybody to advocate for minorities in it.

Sobotka himself is backing down not just to pressure from Zeman and his "fifth column" in the ČSSD, but also to pressure from Babiš. For the fight against poverty, what is necessary is not just the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, but also the adoption of a law on social housing.

Without addressing the issue of housing, it is not possible for us to extricate ourselves from the trap of poverty. Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová may have survived the recent cabinet reshuffle, but her flagship project - the law on social housing - is sinking.

The ANO ministers have blocked her bill with such a large amount of mutually contradictory comments that they probably can't be dealt with at all. At the most recent governing coalition meeting, ANO and ČSSD did not reach agreement on how to deal with the comments, and it is probable that the law will not be approved by the end of the Government's mandate.

That means in the future, cities and municipalities will lack the legislation they need to prevent the creation of new socially excluded localities and address the existing ones. This is why I am concerned that this lack of political will is significantly dampening the process of social inclusion in the Czech Republic and we can anticipate an even bigger number of impoverished people and the further growth of ghettos all over the republic.

First published on a blog run by news server Aktualně.cz.

Džamila Stehlíková, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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