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In Czech Republic, NGOs Launch Anti-Corruption Campaign

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, September 8 2014

The Czech Parliament in Prague (Photo: Matt Dell/Flickr)

“We have a plan to end corruption. And we need your help to make it happen.”

This is the message a coalition of Czech NGOs used for a campaign to rebuild citizen trust and credibility towards institutions after a huge corruption scandal disrupted the political scene a little more than a year ago.

The NGOs' campaign at the core of a project called Rekonstrukce Státu (Reconstruction of the State), a joint effort of more than 20 civil society organizations, with support coming from national enterprises and international donors.

Reconstruction of the State was not born out of a recent campaign, but is rather the result of a long and difficult process, saysPavel Franc to techPresident. He is the CEO of Frank Bold, one of the main organizations behind Reconstruction of the State. Franc, a 36-year-old lawyer with a background in Environmental Law, developed the idea for the project in 2009, but it took time to build a team and secure funding. In 2011, he persuaded other organizations to coalesce.

Initial support came from the U.S. embassy, as previously reported by techPresident's Jessica McKenzie in May 2013. She wrote, “It was the then new U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen who invited the heads of the top NGOs to dinner and encouraged them to talk it out, think about it, then come back for dinner and talk some more.” While the U.S. embassy also gave financial support in the beginning, today the main donors are Open Society and other organizations that fund civil society initiatives in Eastern Europe, as well as enterprises and individual donors.

Then, unexpected events forced the coalition to suddenly rethink its plans.

National elections in the Czech Republic were supposed to happen in summer 2014, Franc recalls, but in June 2013 a major corruption scandal erupted: in the early hours of June 13th, more than 400 police officers raided offices of businessmen and of government officials, including the prime minister's. It was the last stage in a major investigation against organized crime.

The scandal involved several entrepreneurs, powerful lobbyists and members of the government. Several arrests were made, including the chief of staff to then-prime minister Petr Necas. Four days after the raid, the prime minister resigned.

When new elections were suddenly called, the coalition behind Reconstruction of the State had to quickly change its strategy.

Even before the scandal, Reconstruction of the State had developed a series of detailed anti-corruption proposals, that ranged from a registering of public contracts to transparency in party financing.

During the last election campaign, the coalition then asked candidates to publicly commit to this agenda, which propose the adoption of nine anti-corruption bills, and launched a major awareness campaign that used both social media and traditional canvassing: “[so-called] 'anti-corruption' newspapers were delivered to the households,” recalls Kamil Gregor in a Skype interview with techPresident. Gregor is a data analyst at Kohovoli.eut, a Czech NGO that is part of the coalition.

As a result of the successful campaign, today, 165 out of the 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies of the Czech Parliament currently in power have signed that pledge.

The nine bills that form the Reconstruction of the State's agenda

At that point, the work of the coalition had just begun: the team is now constantly in touch with Parliament members to inform the public of their work. The team also monitors Parliament activity and votes.

The coalition is also working to keep the new Parliament and the coalition government accountable by comparing MPs' votes to their commitment to transparency.

Joining Efforts: A Strategy For Systemic Change

The choice of joining efforts was a consequence of shared frustration among many civil society members. “We were not able to reach systemic changes,” admits Franc during our interview.

“At some point, many of the country's NGOs came up with the conclusion that they had the same agenda: fighting corruption,” Gregor told me. He later added that this also helped with the media, that found it easier to talk about an easily recognizable brand.

After an initial boost during the campaign, the coalition is now facing day-to-day work with a new political class and a coalition government. Things are slowing down, even though the coalition is a well-recognized project at this moment, with frequent contacts with MPs and ministers.

The website displays the stage of the nine bills: at the moment half of them are being debated in committees and half of them are in the voting process. One out of nine bills – the abolition of anonymous shares – had been made into law (though most of the process happened with the previous government).

Monitoring parties in the Parliament (Source: Reconstruction of the State)

I ask Franc if this is a transitional moment for the Czech Republic political scene. He is skeptical. “People are more reluctant to engage,” he tells me, explaining that people want to wait and see what the new government and the new MPs will do. The political scene, however, does actually look better and the financial situation is improving, he adds (though the economic crisis hasn't hit the country as hard as elsewhere in Europe).

According to Franc, the main issue in completing the process set in motion by Reconstruction of the State is not a change of heart or a hidden agenda, but something that he defines as “very human”: a lack of ownership.

Since it was Reconstruction of the State that proposed the pledge and provide detailed proposals on the laws, many politicians feel like it is not something they significantly contributed to.

When it comes to approving an anti-corruption law, he explains, “they [members of the Parliament] would vote for it, but they would not fight for it.”

During an election campaign that followed a major corruption scandal every candidate was obviously willing to publicly engage on these issues and commit to the project: “many candidates and parties picked the issues, pledged, put them as priorities in their political manifestos,” recalls Gregor, who is also very active in the international open data community that focuses on monitoring Parliaments' activities.

Today, while not opposing the transparency process, they often “behave like they have other priorities,” according to Franc.

Next: A Register of Public Contracts?

Gregor is optimistic about the next steps the coalition will take: “Civil society is working to get the anti-corruption agenda adopted: this will produce massive amount of data to analyze.” One of the most interesting areas is that of public contracts, he adds.

The neighboring Slovakia has a well-functioning public contract register that dates back to 2011, acknowledged as a best practice by the Open Government Partnership: “it has adopted an act that conditions the entry of force of contracts made in the public administration sector to their publication in the Central Register of Contracts,” it reads be on the OGP website.

A similar work on the register, though, is struggling to be completed by the new Czech Republic government. Ironically, Franc tells me during our interview, the person in charge of working on the register of contracts – and, according to him, actively delaying its implementation, is Deputy Minister of Interior Adriana Krnacova, who headed the Czech branch of Transparency International from 2001 to 2007.

The Czech chapter of Transparency International is one of the main partners of Reconstruction of the State.

At the moment, Reconstruction of the State is working on activities for the campaign for Czech local elections, to be held next October.

This time the material will include an assessment on what political parties have done so far and another pledge to the nine bills, as there will also be a Senate election.

Franc points out that there is also an increasing number of volunteers actively engaged in lobbying their representative in Parliament. These volunteers are a network of 150-200 people, some law students, that Franc defines as 'ambassadors,' trained on specific transparency issues.

"Creating a network of active citizens was the basis for [this] network of ambassadors," says Franc.

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