Ján Bajger: Roma in the Czech Republic don't vote because they underestimate themselves
More than 150 Romani candidates are running in the local elections on 5 and 6 October. News server Romea.cz is profiling those whom we believe have the biggest chance of success because they are running in leading spots on the candidate lists of registered movements and political parties.
Ján Bajger is the top candidate on the PRO! Trmice list in the town of Trmice. The 56-year-old businessman gave the following interview to Romea.cz.
Q: You are no newcomer to local politics, you ran for the first time in 2006 for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and now, 12 years later, you are running again. Why did you decide to take this step?
A: In 2006 we won the elections with ODS because it was a strong party, the public believed in them. Local Romani voters supported us in the elections, and surprisingly they turned out in big numbers. Some regions can only dream of such turnout today. The Roma felt it was their duty to express their opinions and to have somebody leading the town who would also defend their interests. After my term ended I did not run again because of family problems, I stayed out of public life. However, just as I decided to run before, I have decided to run today and I am basically running for the same reason now as I did then.
Q: What is your main motivation to return to local politics after 12 years?
A: In Trmice a coalition has been governing for the last eight years that is not favorable to Romani people. The local assembly members currently sitting in the town leadership have not issued a single program aiming to support the Romani people living in Trmice. There was a chance to access EU subsidies, to draw on financial support for projects from different programs for the socially vulnerable. However, for the local assembly it is more comfortable to say that they will not be aiding the Romani people who live in lower Trmice. Anti-Romani sentiment is palpably rising in our town, the majority population is averse to Romani people, and therefore I have decided to run again so I can benefit the local Roma.
Q: The Ústecký Region is not usually reported on by the media in a positive light, according to surveys the quality of life there is assessed as one of the worst in the Czech Republic. What are the most burning problems in your town, in your view?
A: Somewhere around 800 Romani people live in Trmice, and the biggest problem above all is the relocation of Romani families from place to place, from one municipality to the next. The people who move to the Ústí area seek low-cost housing, but these relocations happen because of the business people who rent apartments to the socially vulnerable for high rents in order to cash in on their housing benefits. We encounter this problem practically everywhere. Trafficking in poverty is on the rise, but the politicians are closing their eyes to it and pretending it has nothing to do with them. The only possible solution is a law on social housing, which the Government is refusing. Another problem is indebtedness, which it is necessary to address more comprehensively than it has been so far. Families, and not just Romani ones, are falling to the very bottom of the barrel, the penalties they are paying on their debt are increasing, they do not have the money to pay for their basic needs, they cannot afford their rents. Then there is the loan-sharking issue as a result of all this. We Roma must also openly admit our problems, know how to name them and do our best to resolve them.
Q: Ústí nad Labem is, after Kladno, another city that has recently announced "measures of a general nature", i.e., that has specified territorial zones where the state housing benefits cannot be disbursed to people living in those areas. What is your view of all of that?
A: The reason those housing benefit-free zones are being created in the first place is something we probably all know. This is aimed especially at Romani people, we know it. In Trmice we also have housing benefit-free zones that are meant to prevent the influx of more Romani people from the surrounding towns. This measure is not a providential one, its consequences are impacting many Romani families because once their leases expire on an address in such an area, if they stay there they lose their housing benefits, and they are not able to afford to pay rent without them. The town leadership decided to designate housing benefit-free zones to limit the amount of "welfare tourism" by people from other regions because the representatives of the town are convinced the locality would collapse otherwise, but we should realize that this is no solution and that far greater problems will be created by it. Currently, local governments are just pushing these problems beyond their own territorial limits so other towns will have to deal with them, and that's no solution. A solution would be for local authorities to allocate money to buy the apartment buildings that would otherwise be sold to the traffickers in poverty. The local authority could then exercise much more decision-making control over who will live at the addresses owned by the municipality and under what conditions.
Q: Is there a way out at this moment?
A: I hope a more favorable local coalition will result from the elections - I do not believe we will have such brilliant electoral results that we would be able
to govern without the support of other parties. Only then can we speak openly about how we will address the problems in our town. Those problems concern
housing, unemployment, and improving coexistence between the majority and the Romani residents of Trmice, above all.
Q: In Ústí nad Labem there are currently trams running with billboards on them advertising the DSSS party and the slogan "STOP BLACK PASSENGERS". How are local Romani people responding to that?
A: Those extremist, populist parties have been doing their best to get into power for a long time here and to mine a certain deficiency that predominates in this society. Most of those who vote for such parties are less educated, they enjoy hearing their populist rants and they allow themselves to be manipulated by them. Where is the person who is going to stop that? Romani people do not respond positively to these tram ads, which is not surprising, but none of them have decided to do anything about it or to speak out against it, which is a sad result.
Q: Romani people are still spoken of as participating in elections in low numbers only. Do you have a prescription for how to get Romani people to come to the ballot box?
A: Romani people take advantage of the right to vote much less than the majority society does. My experience is that Romani people do not vote because they are ashamed of themselves, they underestimate themselves. There are no Romani people sitting on the local election commissions, just majority-society people, and the Roma have the feeling that to vote means going somewhere where nobody is interested in their participation. I encountered that in the year 2006 when I first ran. I decided to visit local voters and explain to them that they have the right to vote, that they should be proud to be able to vote at all. Back then they stood up and supported us. Thanks to that effort, we managed to convince Romani people to vote in record numbers. I believe that this year we will have the same success.
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