Roma in Politics in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland

07 February 2004

 Eva Sobotka1


The political representation and participation of minorities2 has been identified by various organisations operating in national security, conflict prevention or the human rights paradigm as a condition for healthy functioning of a democratic political system and a measure for increasing human security.3

A number of states in Central and Eastern Europe, after some hesitancy, have recognised Roma as national minorities.4 The status of national minority, however, has not been a step towards ensuring adequate political representation of Roma. This paper will provide an overview of existing political representation and participation of Roma in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland and draw attention to conclusions of several research studies on Romani political participation and representation conducted in 2002-2003.

While in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, Romani participation has increased throughout the 1990s, political representation of Roma remains a missing element in the newly consolidated democratic systems of these states.5 At the same time, it has been argued that the post-communist countries are rich in Romani representatives (Mirga and Gheorghe 1997: 8-11). According to this view, two opposite trends, which took place in the region throughout the 1990s, have contributed to the emergence of a large number of Romani representatives.6 On the one hand, the development of pluralist society in the post-communist period in Central and Eastern Europe opened new ways to the ethnic mobilisation of Roma by providing opportunities for them to represent themselves in political life as well as to protect and promote their language and culture. On the other hand, within the Romani community, divisions have appeared based on the leadership/representation aspirations of people from different generations.7 Here, the large number of representatives again proves that under the unifying name "Roma" - used especially in the 1990s - there is an archipelago of diverse groups, cultures and traditions.8

In the Czechoslovak context of the early 1990s, Romani representatives were elected in the 1990 parliamentary elections on the party lists of mainstream political parties and also engaged in policy making at the central level of state administration. However, most Romani elected officials failed to be re-elected and instead continued their activity in non-governmental organisations. From this position they continued to participate in policy advice on Roma and often called themselves "Romani representatives". In the Czech and Slovak contexts therefore the word "Romani representative" has expanded its meaning of elected official to cover a broad category of individuals of Romani ethnicity, including Roma involved in policy-making at the advisory level as well as those active at the civil-society level and in particular, involved in human rights activism.9 In the Polish context, no individual who identified themselves as Roma was ever elected to the legislative bodies at the central or local level. Therefore the meaning of "Romani representative" in Poland is more of a mixture of traditional community leader and a leader who has been active in the field of human rights of Roma, or who has contributed to the cultural development of the community during the 1990s.

Calls for Romani Political Representation

As of 2003, political participation and representation of Roma remains inadequate across Europe.10 A number of international organisations such as the European Union (EU), the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (CoE) have recommended action to remedy this situation. Disadvantages of Roma in political representation was identified as having double, and in the case of Romani women triple, intensity (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Recommendation 1557: 2002). The most recent general statement of the Council of Europe on political participation and representation of Roma in Recommendation 1557 (2002) reads:

The Assembly calls upon the member states to elaborate and implement specific programmes to improve the integration of Roma as individuals and Romani communities as minority groups into society and ensure their participation in decision-making processes at local, regional, national and European levels:

[...] iii. to involve representatives of Roma at all stages of the decision-making process in developing, implementing and evaluating programmes aimed at improving the conditions of Romani individuals and communities. This involvement should not be limited to consultation only, but should take the shape of a real partnership;

iv. encourage the presence of Romani members in national parliaments and encourage the participation of elected Romani representatives in the regional and local legislature process and executive body;[...]11

At the same time, inter-governmental organisations recognise that any improvement in the political representation of Roma and other relevant areas of life has to happen at the level of the state as well as at the local level.12 In the words of Josephine Verspaget, the former Chair of the Specialist group on Roma/Gypsies in the Council of Europe: "Instead of focusing too much on the international organisations as a help from heaven, we must realise that every improvement has to be done at state and local levels. International organisations can, in the end, not change the policies of governments and local authorities. This has to be done in the countries themselves."13

Governmental policies toward Roma, formulated during the 1990s, are ambivalent on the issues of promoting political representation of Roma. While the Czech Concept14 defines political representation of Roma as one of its main objectives, the Polish "Małopolska Programme"15 includes achievement of full participation of Roma at the level of civil society but does not touch upon the issue of promoting participation or representation of Roma at central and local level of government. The Slovak Strategy16 emphasises the need to provide opportunities for Roma to participate in resolving "their own problems", yet it fails to specify the means for reaching this objective.

Despite lack of attention to the issue of Romani representation at the national level, international calls for increasing political representation of Roma have been articulated for some time. In fact, the debate between Romani activists and trans-national organisations on issues concerning Romani political participation has been going on for a number of years. In 1999, the Supplementary Human Dimension meeting on Roma and Sinti Issues of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) proposed recommendations for increasing Roma participation through the "best practices" of Romani policy identified in some OSCE states. In particular, focus was devoted to arrangements such as advisory bodies on Romani policy. Recommendations on increasing participation of Romani women at the local level and in administrative positions, along with a plea to increase the number of Roma policemen, judges and prosecutors, were put forward.17 Discussions have been shaped by a speech by the then OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) Max van der Stoel, who defined improvement of political participation and Romani interest representation as the next step forward.18 In the speech, the HCNM stated:

Roma are still vastly underrepresented in elected and appointed office at all levels of Government. Efforts must be made to more actively engage Roma in public service.[...]

[M]echanisms that are set up to allow for Roma participation must be genuine in their intentions and meaningful in their endeavours; [...]

The effectiveness of consultative mechanisms can be measured by a number of criteria: allowing for early involvement of Roma in Roma-related policy formation; the extent to which the process is broadly representative; transparency; and the involvement of Roma in implementation and evaluation of Roma-related programs. [...]

[E]ffective participation of Roma at all levels of government, the development and refinement of mechanisms to alleviate tension and conflict between Romani and non-Roma communities, and combating racism and discrimination within public administrations.

[The] effective participation of national minorities in public life is an essential component of a peaceful and democratic society. In the Roma case, more than most, ways have to be found of facilitating them within the State while enabling them to maintain their own identity and characteristics.19

In 2000, at the workshop on Romani political participation,20 organised by the ODIHR, the options of representation through Romani ethnic parties versus representation through mainstream political parties were discussed. In view of the practical obstacles posed by the electoral thresholds in some countries, an opinion emerged that Romani demands should be articulated within the agenda of the mainstream parties. Special treatment in the form of recognition of group rights (i.e. the Hungarian model of minority self-governments) was identified as perpetuating the separation of Roma from mainstream societies and called counterproductive in integration efforts. Politically, the social democratic ideology was identified by most of the participants as closest to the needs of Roma. In addition, while cultural richness and diversity of Romani NGOs were suitable for the civil sector, it was identified as counter-productive in real politics. Rather than diversity, Romani representatives felt, unification of Roma in one political party was needed.21 Romani activists/leaders' recommendations on political participation/representation further included:

  • awareness-raising and training on increasing political participation in areas such as: minority participation, Roma/Roma women participation in the electoral process, professionalisation of Romani political parties and creation of resources (Romani Bank), to achieve self-sufficiency in politics; 
  • the founding of an International Romani Council, which would discuss issues of Romani concern and would bring together Romani mayors, representatives, politicians, etc.22

In 2001, at the seminar on Romani Representation and Leadership at the National and International Level, organised by the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) and the PER Roma Advisory Council, continuing debate of representation and leadership raised the question of the source of legitimacy for Romani leaders to represent Roma in politics.23 Discussions on trans-national representation of Roma reached a critical stage and discussants focused on issues of Romani constituency and reciprocity in respect to efforts to set up a trans-national representation body.24 The minority rights concept was identified again as insufficient to secure meaningful representation on the one hand and debilitating to the efforts for representation in mainstream politics, on the other.25

Conclusions that emerged from the debates between Romani activists and international organisations on political representation of Roma can be summed up as follows: 

  • Minority or group rights and policies alone are not an adequate tool for promoting Romani representation.
  • Special treatment based on group rights perpetuates the separation of Roma from mainstream politics.
  • The gap between the Roma active within government advisory bodies and trans-national networks of the Romani movement is increasing, whereas Roma in government advisory structures are not active in the trans-national networks.
  • The history of Romani political activism at the civil society level during the 1990s, as well as trans-national level post-World War II efforts by Romani activists to institutionalise the Romani nation, show that efforts to seek legitimate representation through structures other than the national state are highly appealing to Roma.
  • Political mobilisation of Roma is increasingly sensitive to age and gender equality issues.
  • Social democratic ideology is closest to Romani values. 
  • Ethnic Romani parties are seen as useful for invigorating discussion among Roma and bridging the generation gap, yet, due to the electoral system's design, political strategy for winning seats in the legislature should be pursued inside mainstream parties.
  • Legitimacy and constituency are consciously respected values within the context of Roma political representation discussion; this indicates a certain degree of conservatism in the circles of Romani elites.
  • Non-governmental organisations represent a brain-drain for most educated Romani elite.
  • Romani political parties lack structures, fail to build constituencies and often chose the least effective pre-electoral strategy.
  • Friction between the growing number of Roma active in Romani policy advisory structures and Romani political mobilisation is increasing due to competing ambitions.

Does the Status of National Minority Lead to Meaningful Political Representation of Roma?

Recommendation 1557 (2002) of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, among other things, lists appropriate legal status of Roma as a precondition for the successful integration of Roma and for increasing their political representation. Proper legal status, understood as recognition of Roma as a national minority and as the fulfilment of group rights, is seen by the Assembly as the answer to the woeful absence of Roma in political life (Recommendation 1557: 2002, point 6). However, even when we find proper legal status, political representation does not follow automatically from it, especially in systems not privileging minorities' political representation. In such countries, and especially where the numbers of Roma are relatively low, representation in the legislature will always depend on the support from and inclusion in the mainstream parties.

In Hungary, for example, Roma, among other national minorities, are recognised as an ethnic minority native to Hungary and entitled to form national and local minority self-governments by the Constitution and the 1993 Act on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities.26 Hence, Romani minority self-representation has been realised through a system of "Gypsy minority self-governments" and a "National Gypsy minority self-government". Minority representation of Roma in Hungary, understood as cultural self-determination rather than political representation, has been realised through election of minority self-governments. This parallel system of representation, however, does not contribute to increasing inclusion of Roma in the political mainstream,27 which is entirely dependent on (1) the level of successful lobbying of Roma to be included on the party ticket and (2) the political openness of parties to issues of diversity and representation of minorities in mainstream politics. Despite the fact that the process of election of the Gypsy minority self-governments is of great symbolic value for many Roma in Hungary, the Romani representatives elected through this system perform mainly a symbolic function and are not very influential in the process of policy making.28 Experience with promoting policy change in matters pertaining to Roma, shows unequivocally that it is the political mainstream, i.e. political parties, national government, local government, which count as crucial in a process of policy making.

The 1992 Constitution of the Czech Republic stipulates that all political decisions shall stem from the will of the majority, expressed by means of free vote, and must consider the protection of minorities (Article 6). The Charter of Basic Rights and Freedoms, which is part of the Czech constitutional order (Article 3), recognises a minority's right to participate in public affairs. The Act on Rights of Members of National Minorities (273/2001) guarantees that members of national minorities have the right to participate in cultural, social and economic life, especially with regard to matters concerning national minorities at the communal, regional and national levels. This right has been realised through the Councils for National Minorities and Committees for National Minorities, established by the regional and local elected authorities.29

The right to be represented in Committees and Councils at the local and regional level, however, applies to minorities who meet the 10 percent threshold in a given community, 5 percent threshold in a region and 5 percent threshold in the capital Prague, according to the last official census results.30 The requirement that the number of national minorities in a given administrative unit is defined according to the most recent census result could be particularly problematic for Roma.

Roma may not even find their way in minority bodies, especially at regional and local levels. In the Czech Republic, where in 1991, 0.3 percent of population declared Romani nationality, in 2001 the figure dropped to 0.1percent. Estimates, however, cite 150,000-300,000 Roma in the Czech Republic, approximately 1.5-2.7 percent of total population. In some areas with a high concentration of Roma, particularly in Prague, and in Moravskoslezký, Ústecký, Liberecký and Jihomoravský regions, the condition of representation based on the census might lead to disproportional results.31 In addition, the Committees for National Minorities consist of elected representatives of local and regional authorities who need not be members of these minorities.32

Nevertheless, Roma participate in some of the Committees for National Minorities at the level of regional and city committees. The activity of the Committees is oriented mainly around decisions on funding of activities of national minorities, and in the case of Roma, on coordination of the programmes to increase social integration of Roma.33 However, as noted in the Council on National Minorities' report, "the Act on the Rights of National Minorities is formal and insufficient because it does not enable the access of the representatives of national minorities to local and regional elected authorities."34

In conclusion, the status of national minority is not sufficient for ensuring representation of Roma in the mainstream political channels of the state. At best, as is the case in Hungary, the minority self-government system provides Roma with a sense of having a chance to elect their representatives. However, due to the limitations in the mandate of minority self-governments and the national minority self-government respectively, this system builds only a parallel structure, inadequate to address the issue of inclusion of Roma in mainstream politics. Finally, while some Roma are elected at the local level of the state, this must be attributed either to the numerical strength of the Romani electorate, as is the case in Slovakia, or to the occasional inclusion of Roma on the candidate lists of mainstream political parties.

The Case at Hand: Political Representation of Roma in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland

In Czechoslovakia, the first Romani political party - the Roma Civic Initiative - established on March 10, 1990, along with civil society associations, added to the political mobilisation of Roma. The first Romani MPs were elected into the Federal Assembly and the Czech and Slovak National Councils (the national assemblies) on the electoral lists of the Civic Democratic Forum, the Public Against Violence and the Communist Party, in the first democratic elections held on June 8 and 9, 1990. This electoral success, which some Romani leaders ascribed to the revolutionary euphoria, had, in their opinion, a very positive impact on Roma. Mr Karel Holomek, Romani activist and member of the Czech National Council between 1990 and 1992, remembers the early days in the following way: "Until 1992, within the general euphoria in Czech and Slovak society, Roma were given a chance to take an active part in policy formation and politics. Roma were very enthusiastic about this new milieu and they participated in public life."35 In the words of a Romani member of the Slovak National Council (1990-1992), Anna Koptová: "The change of principles in policy making towards Roma in 1991 laid the foundation of the ethno-cultural development of the Roma." (Koptová, 2001: 15)

Elected Romani representatives took an active part in the formation of policy on Roma at the levels of the Czech and Slovak as well as the Federal government. Unification of a number of Czech Romani initiatives, NGOs and Romani MPs, under the umbrella organisation Roma National Congress in 1991, created a united presentation of Romani interests vis-ŕ-vis mainstream politics and added coherence to the Romani political scene. Similarly, in Slovakia, Romani MPs, NGOs and political parties, although established later than in the Czech Republic, unified under the umbrella organisation of the Roma National Congress and made an attempt to present themselves as a unified voice vis-ŕ-vis the government.36

Diversity of Romani political organising is certainly an attribute the Romani political scene in Slovakia has not been short of. 37Several attempts to unify diversified Romani parties took place in 1992, with the Roma National Congress (RNC), in 1993 with the establishment of the Association Council of the Roma in Slovakia (ACRS) and then again in October 2000, with the establishment of the umbrella organisation - the Romani Parliament (RP). Finally, the unification of several political parties (the Roma Integration Coalition (RIC), the Roma Social Democratic Party (RSDP) and the Roma Civic Unity (RCU)) resulted in the formation in May 2002, of the Political Movement of Roma in Slovakia (PMRS).

Romani Parties and Candidates in the Electoral Process

Czech Republic38

In the 1992 national elections in the Czech Republic, new mainstream parties, such as the Civic Democratic Party, the Civic Democratic Alliance, and the Christian Democratic Union (Czech Popular Party and the Social Democratic Party) refused to nominate Romani candidates on their party lists in the general elections.39 In the Czech Republic, one Romani candidate appeared on the electoral list of the Communist Party in 1990 and took a seat in the Parliament until 1996. In the parliamentary elections in June 1996, 18 Roma (including two women) stood as candidates for the lower chamber of the Czech Parliament (Pospisil 1998: 153-159). However, all Romani candidates were put up in constituencies where they had little chance to be elected, or they stood for parties which drew few voters. As a result, no Roma was elected to the Lower Chamber.40 In addition, in the same year, four Roma stood for election to the Upper Chamber - the Senate - and again none was elected. In the parliamentary election in 1998, one Romani candidate, Monika Horáková, stood on the party list of the Union of Liberty, and became MP until 2002, and one Romani candidate, Ladislav Body, stood for the Christian Democratic Union, but ended in 17th place, which did not allow him to take a seat in Parliament.

Between 1992 and 1997 in the Czech Republic, Romani policy formation and any discussion between public officials and the Romani political elite on policy formation was discontinued. In Slovakia, similar developments took place between 1992 and 1998. In addition, the growing level of nationalism and racial hatred in the two countries added an ideology of paternalism and the view that Roma are the root cause of the situation in subsequent policy making.

Before the 2002 Czech parliamentary elections, some pre-election attempts were made to promote Romani candidates on mainstream party lists. However, most of the parties with high electoral potential, including the Green party, argued either that the proposed Romani candidates were controversial personalities or that the non-Romani electorate was not ready to elect a Romani candidate to the Parliament. According to Romani leaders, reference has been made to racist inclinations of the Czech electorate:

I have contacted several political parties and offered my candidacy, requesting to be put on the electoral list on a front place in the general election in 1998 and 2002. I trusted that experience of a former MP and my active participation in public life at the NGO and policy-making level would make me an attractive candidate for the political mainstream. Yet, I was wrong and to my great surprise, the Social Democrats as well as the political parties on the right of the political spectrum, [...], showed me a red card, and I remained seated in the back seat of NGO politics.41

In the 2002 elections, Roma combined strategies.42 The Roma Civic Initiative (RCI) ran an electoral list in a single electoral district in the Moravian-Silesian region and won about 532 votes, which makes 0.01 percent of the vote. Roma also appeared as candidates on the electoral lists of political parties with lower electoral potential, which did not make it over the 5 percent electoral threshold.

Roma were more successful at the local elections. In 1998, Romani candidate Milan Kotlár was elected on the ticket of the Civic Democratic Party in the city of Český Krumlov and, reportedly, another four Romani councillors took office in areas of the Czech Republic (Pospíšil, 1998: 159). In the 2002 local elections, five Roma were elected on mainstream parties' electoral tickets in Ostrava, Frýdek Místek and Liberec.43


In the 1992 national elections in Slovakia, Romani candidates appeared on the party lists of the Social Democratic Party of Slovakia and the Communist Party of Slovakia but were not elected. At the same time, two Romani political parties, the Roma Civic Initiative and the Labour and Security Party, did not pass the 5 percent electoral threshold, winning 0.6 percent and 0.97 percent of the votes, respectively.45 About 30 percent of the Roma in Slovakia voted for Romani political parties (Mann 1994:18). In the 1994 parliamentary elections, only one Romani political party stood for election, the Roma Civic Initiative. Some Romani candidates stood in the electoral party lists of the Slovak Democratic Left and the Democratic Union.46 The Roma Civic Initiative, financially supported by the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, which aimed at taking votes from the Slovak Democratic Left and the Hungarian Coalition, gained only 0.67 percent of the vote; however its leader, Ján Kompuš, was given a position in the Council for Nationalities and after the establishment of the Plenipotentiary Office for the Roma, became its deputy (Jurová 1999:14).47

Since the beginning of 1998, Romani politicians had been striving to unite Romani political parties in Slovakia. After several unsuccessful negotiations, the Romani leaders parted ways. In the 1998 parliamentary elections, no Romani political party ran independently. Shortly after the elections, it seemed that the objective of merging Romani political parties into a single Romani coalition stood a better chance than ever before. However, further developments, and especially quarrels for positions within the Roma Intelligence for Coexistance party, made it clear that the Romani political scene was not quite ready for a Romani coalition yet. The Roma Intelligence for Coexistence party signed a pre-election agreement with the Slovak Democratic Coalition, hoping to have Romani representatives involved in policy-making in case the Slovak Democratic Coalition formed the government. However, none of the representatives of the Romani party, were elected, because all of them were placed at positions too low on the party lists. The Roma Civic Initiative cooperated with the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, which put its representative, Ján Kompuš, in the 61st place on the candidate list and József Ravasz in the 88th place. Ján Kompuš died tragically in a car accident prior the election and József Ravasz was too far down the list to secure a seat.

In the municipal elections in Slovakia in December 1998, Roma stood mostly on the candidates' lists of the Roma Civic Initiative and the Roma Intelligence Party, and ran as independent candidates, but they also appeared on the candidates' lists of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia, Slovak Democratic Coalition, Slovak Democratic Left, Communist Party of Slovakia and the Hungarian Coalition and the Association of Slovak Workers. Altogether 254 Romani candidates ran for municipal councillors and seven candidates ran for mayor. In the end, a total of 56 Roma were elected as municipal councillors and six Romani candidates became mayors of municipalities or city districts.

At the beginning of September 1999, representatives of 14 Romani political parties signed a joint agreement establishing the Coalition Council of Romani Political Parties. In October 2000, 14 Roma political parties and 37 Roma non-governmental organisations signed an agreement on a joint strategy for the 2002 parliamentary elections. The agreement was the most remarkable achievement so far in Romani political unification. It stated that all Roma political parties would team up behind the Roma Civic Initiative, the oldest and most consolidated Romani political party in Slovakia.

In the 2002 Parliamentary election in Slovakia, two candidates from the Roma Intelligence of Slovakia Party appeared on the candidate lists of the Movement for Democratic Slovakia. Despite a promise that they would be placed in the first 40 positions of the electoral lists, Alexander Patkoló, leader of Roma Intelligence for Coexistence appeared at the unwinnable 75th place on the Movement for Democratic Slovakia's list. Two Romani candidates stood for office on the electoral list of the Democratic Party-Democratic Union at the 38th and the 77th place respectively, though shortly before the election the party withdrew its candidacy in favour of the Slovak Democratic Christian Party (Majchrák 2002: 24). In addition, the Roma Civic Initiative and the Political Movement of Roma in Slovakia stood independently in the elections. None of the Romani candidates were elected.

Two parties representing Roma, the Political Movement of Roma in Slovakia and the Roma Civic Initiative of the Slovak Republic, participated in this election. None of them gained a significant share of the vote; the former had 8,420 votes (0.29 percent), and the latter 6,234 (0.21 percent).48 In none of the country's 79 districts did the Roma parties' coalition vote reach the electoral threshold of 5 percent. Yet, Romani membership in the electoral commissions at all levels was higher than in previous elections, indicating heightened attention to involvement of Roma in the electoral process.49

In Slovakia in the local election in December 2002, several local representatives were elected on electoral tickets of mainstream parties.


In Poland, creation of Romani NGOs and political parties happened at a slower pace and Romani leaders had not raised the issue of political participation until 1997, when the deterioration of the socio-economic situation of Roma and the growing level of racially motivated violence, prompted Romani leaders to call for the attention of the government. An inter-Roma community unification was achieved between the Bergitka Roma and the Polska Roma51 on the issue of improving the situation of Roma in Poland. Romani leaders made an effort to build a partnership with the Ministry of Interior and Education on Roma policy making. However, there has been no Romani Member of Parliament or local municipality anywhere in Poland during the 1990s and early 2000s.

In the Małopolska Province, Romani leaders attempted to mobilise the Romani electoral force in the local elections of November 2002. Four Romani candidates ran on the ticket of the Democratic Left Alliance. Although none of them were elected, the turnout of the registered Romani electorate reportedly reached 95-100 percent, compared to 35 percent of all registered voters.

Roma in the Mainstream Political Parties' Platforms

In the 1990s, no serious discussion on political representation of Roma took place inside the mainstream political parties in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. Slovak and Czech politicians conceptualised Romani policy mainly through such objectives as crime prevention, control of migration and protection of public order.52 In the Czech Republic, an explicit policy stand on Roma has been taken only by the extreme right-wing parties.53

In Slovakia, political parties have addressed policy towards Roma in their electoral programmes, taking especially the social policy perspective. In the 1992 elections, the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement in Slovakia raised issues concerning Roma within the framework of schooling policy and minority rights. In the 1994 Slovak national elections, only the Slovak Democratic Left briefly mentioned Roma policy in its documents. In the Parliamentary election in 1998, the Slovak Democratic Left, the Movement for Democratic Slovakia and the Hungarian Coalition Party mentioned Roma in their electoral programs (Vašečka, 2002: 34). Here again, the greatest attention to Romani issues was paid by the Slovak Democratic Left, which viewed Romani issues as "an internal problem of the national minority, which is trying to find its identity and further possibilities of their fulfilment in education, culture, language and social improvement" (Majchrak 2002: 35). The Movement for Democratic Slovakia's electoral program of 1998 touched on two points concerning Romani issues. Having a clear anti-Hungarian context, it expressed concern that too many Roma declare Hungarian nationality and formulated the goal of "raising the national consciousness of the Roma, so they proclaim freely their own nationality" (Majchrak 2002: 35). The second point related to Roma indirectly, proposing a reduction in the amount of social benefits for "citizens which are inadaptable".54 The Slovak Hungarian Coalition touched upon the Roma in its electoral program under the chapter on social policy, stating that it was necessary to include Roma in policy-making and implementation.

In the 2002 Slovak Parliamentary election, a new populist political party, the Alliance of New Citizens (ANO), paid significant attention to Romani issues. The ANO declared the previous Romani policy efforts insufficient and made the following suggestions: 

  • centralise financial sources on Roma policy implementation;
  • create a centre for Roma policy implementation in Eastern Slovakia;
  • create a state system of missionary work among Roma.55

The policy proposal on missionary work takes as a model in the Israeli kibbutzim from the 1960s, with an attempt to rebuild Romani settlements on the kibbutzim model, where the Romani missionary would control upbringing of children centrally. In the program description of the Romani missionary, the political party specifically requested that: "the character and other qualities of Romani missionaries include the ability to live for a long term (with family) in a highly stressful conditions of the Romani settlement, risky environment, in infectious environment (hepatitis, AIDS, syphilis, fleas and lice), in a criminal environment, in a segregated Romani community, without privacy, with risks of exposure to cancerous thoughts including radical Islam and with a long-term low quality of life." The proposal also depends heavily on stereotypes, reflected in assertions such as the idea that communication with Roma is most successful through music, etc.56

The Slovak Hungarian Coalition promised in its electoral program to address Romani issues with active participation of the Roma themselves. The Social Democratic Alliance addressed Romani issues only partially in the chapter on social policy dealing with a broader category of disadvantaged poor (women, elderly, youth, unemployed etc.). The Movement for Democratic Slovakia raised again its concern about the "unadaptable citizens" in relation to social benefits and promised larger competencies for the local authorities to decide over social benefits. On a similar note, the Slovak National Party and the Slovak Democratic Christian Union proposed payment of social benefits in material goods. The right-wing political party Smer ("Direction") - widely viewed as Slovakia's most dangerous new political development - proposed to address the "irresponsible growth of Romani population in Slovakia" through "dissemination of information on health", and to "lower the number of Roma" through "qualified social work".57

In conclusion, in Slovakia, unlike in the Czech Republic, all political parties participating in the electoral process included Roma-specific policy in their electoral and party programmes. The political discourse on Romani policy has oscillated between calls to diminish the "large numbers" of Roma and perpetuate the segregationist pattern of the Romani settlements (Smer, the Alliance of New Citizens), to commitments for the active involvement of Roma in "solving their own problems" (the Slovak Democratic Left, the Slovak Coalition and all Hungarian parties). Neither the left nor right of the Slovak political spectrum viewed the Romani issue as an issue of relevance for the whole of Slovak society.

Roma Political Rights in Government Policy Documents

The Czech government adopted two framework policy documents, the "Report on the Situation of the Romani Community in the Czech Republic and the Government Measures Assisting its Integration into Society in 1997" (hereafter "Report") and the "Concept of the Government Policy towards Members of the Romani Community, Supporting their Integration into Society" (hereafter "Concept") in 2001.58 While the Report does not use the term political representation and has an overall socio-cultural approach to Roma, the Concept, specifying three approaches to Romani affairs - "human rights, national identity (ethnicity), and the wider socio-cultural perspective" - touches upon the presence of Roma in public life in the context of national minority rights and, to some extent, in the context of human rights. Neither the Concept nor the Report, however, consider steps to increase representation of Roma in Parliament.

The practice of Roma policy implementation in the Czech Republic shows that a socio-cultural approach prevails. The Concept states that, 

Because of their oppressive social situation, many Roma avoid the issue of their affiliation to national minority; government policy, on the other hand, must address the plight of this category of socially marginalized Roma, and generally focuses on social matters (employment, social welfare, and housing) rather than specifically national minority concerns (the development of culture and language, national minority education).59

According to the Concept, the nationality issue, with regard to Roma in the Czech Republic, should be overseen by the Council for National Minorities. However, activities of the Council for National Minorities do not include efforts to develop a policy proposal on increasing the presence of minorities in public life, and they are limited to giving grants for cultural projects and events, such as festivals and minority press or other publications. In this way, as cited in the Concept, it "can strive to preserve and develop their independence, language and culture."60 Moreover, the Council for Nationalities brings together national minorities living in the Czech Republic, though there is lack of cross-group solidarity. Each national minority represents its own interests.

The Slovak government adopted three framework documents of policy on Roma. In 1991, Resolution No. 153/1991, entitled "Principles of Government policy towards Roma", laid out areas for improving the situation of Roma. Subsequent adoption of a policy paper drafted by the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs and Family, issued in April 1996, and entitled, "The Resolution of the Slovak Government to the Proposal of the Activities and Measures in Order to Solve the Problems of Citizens in Need of Special Care" rejected the approach identified in the 1991 Resolution and reframed policy towards Roma as an issue of social policy.61 In 1999, the Slovak government adopted redrafted policy towards Roma "Strategy I of the Government of the Slovak Republic for the Solution of the Problems of the Roma National Minority" and the "Set of Measures for Its Implementation Stage I" outlining areas of action. However, those do not deal with political rights. Stage II of the Strategy, adopted in 2000, does not include any measures for increasing presence of Roma in the legislature or the executive either. Further updates on the priorities of the Slovak government on Roma-related policies, especially the plans of action of the Commission for Romani Community Affairs and the Council for National Minorities and Ethnic Groups, do not include political rights objectives.

The Polish government's primary concept for addressing the issues of Roma in Poland is the "Pilot Government Programme for the Roma Community in the Małopolska Province for the years 2001-2003", known as "the Małopolska Programme", adopted in 2001.62 Geographically limited to the MaĹ‚opolska Province, the programme addresses areas of life of Roma residing in the province, focusing primarily on socio-economic issues. The programme does not address the issue of participation of Roma in public life. The programme is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. Although Roma are appointed as consultants on the programme, no institutionalisation in the form of, for example, an advisory body, has taken place.

However, in the Report to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe on the Realisation by the Republic of Poland of the Provisions of the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe for the Protection of National Minorities, the Polish government reports that, during the process of preparation of the report, the government consulted national and ethnic minorities, who "submitted a number of postulates going beyond the issues addressed in the Convention. These include mainly matters concerning: education, access of minorities to the mass media, ensuring more persistent politics of the state and self government authorities, guaranteeing the development of culture and maintenance of minority identity at a safe level, bigger access to the public funds, strengthening of the spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue, enriching the knowledge about minorities living in Poland, and increasing the possibilities of representation of minorities in eligible offices and authorities" [emphasis added]. 63


States that have well-designed democratic political institutions are more successful at managing conflict and resolving political grievances, particularly those that relate to national minorities. Accordingly, the design of the political institutions, and the electoral system in particular, has an important role in ensuring effective participation in public life. Electoral systems can be specifically constructed to address the needs of particular groups in a society. The electoral system, however, must be viewed as one of a multiplicity of interlocking mechanisms which, taken together, will have the effect of accommodating national minorities and ensuring their effective participation in public life. By way of illustration, reserved seats for a particular minority may ensure representation for this minority, but, unless the underlying processes and mechanisms, such as funding, eligibility, training and education are provided, that representation may have little influence.

Accordingly, while the electoral system may ensure minority representation in the legislature, there remains no guarantee that the minority represented will be accorded any material role in the legislature or in the executive. Representation is often not enough. It needs to be supported by other measures. For example, in parliament, the minority may be accorded key seats in parliamentary committees that concern the interests of national minorities or special procedures may be established to deal with minority vetoes with respect to minority issues. In government structures, the proportional allocation of civil service positions may be a mechanism that may be considered to give real meaning to minority participation in public life.

These kinds of supporting measures all contribute to turning what would otherwise be a formal representation through a minority of seats in parliament into meaningful participation of a national minority in public life. Tokenism in representation of national minorities may influence the allocation of seats to a national minority without those seats constituting a platform for a meaningful influence on the decisions that affect that minority. Such perception will undermine the legitimacy of the state's measures to ensure minority participation.

With the advent of the early 1990s, the escalation of a protest cycle by Roma representatives and human rights advocacy by Romani activists, Roma were left still very much in the ranks of civil society, social movement type of organising, not included in the political mainstream. In the words of Rumyan Russinov, the director of the Roma Participation Program of the Open Society Institute, who claims to speak from the position of a Romani activist: "the mechanisms of the Romani movement itself are exhausted and we no longer can carry policy change on the level of civil society [...] we need broader inclusion, not at the policy level, but at the political level." (Russinov 2002: interview).

Improving the political representation of Roma in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland is the ultimate future for these countries, should they care for increasing integration of Roma within the state. A substantial proportion of migration of Roma is caused, as relevant studies show, next to the human rights violations and the low social-economic status, by a feeling of "not being welcomed" and a deeply-rooted feeling of "not belonging".64 Under-represented groups, such as Roma, on the other hand, should pursue a strategy of reaching a critical mass in a number of political parties in parliament. Such a spread would allow them to have a greater influence by, for example, participation in a number of parliamentary committees and councils, crucial in the procedure of adopting laws.

The openness of mainstream political parties toward the candidacy of minority groups, a phenomenon termed in political science "soft mechanics" of the political system, is crucial in addressing the inadequacy of Romani representation. Examples of openness towards Romani candidacy were provided by the general elections in Czechoslovakia in 1990, when 11 Roma were elected in the three representative bodies in Czechoslovakia. One can also mention as partially successful the elections in the Czech Republic in 1992 and 1998, each resulting in the election of one Romani representative. In a short historical retrospect, election of Romani representatives has resulted from an overall openness of political parties and alliances to the idea of visible Romani political representation.

Political parties are the key players in the power division process within the democratic system. Comprehensive policy change in recruiting Roma to the mainstream political parties would increase the presence of Roma in legislative and executive bodies. However, this change requires either change in electoral laws or change in the implementation of the existing laws. Moreover, it requires convincing the general public, political party leaders and rights groups to actively promote non-discrimination in the implementation of political rights of minorities, as well as equal representation of minorities, as matters of national interest.


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  1. The author is a consultant to the European Roma Right Center. Parts of the research findings, presented here, are a result of her research conducted with support of the OSI International Policy Fellowship in 2002. The author can be reached at
  2. For the purposes of this article, unless otherwise noted, political representation is understood, in narrow terms, as a mandate in the legislature and/or the executive at central and/or local level. Participation in public affairs is understood in broader terms, inter alia, participation in the local or national elections, in referendums, campaigning, membership in political parties, pressure groups or advisory bodies to government, human rights activism or community organising.
  3. See for example: Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Non-governmental Experts, a US Statement on National Minorities and Roma at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, September 20, 2001, at; Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area; Statement of HCNM on his Study of the Roma in the CSCE Region, September 23, 1993, at; European Roma Rights Center, Joint Intervention by the International Helsinki Federation (IHF) and the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) at the 2003 Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, October 8, 2003, at:
  4. While in Czechoslovakia in 1990, Roma were recognised as a national minority (narodnostní mensina), after the proclamation of Slovakia's independence in July 1992, the recognition of Roma took a step back. In 1997, for example, the Slovak authorities argued that Roma did not have the sufficient attributes of a national minority, and therefore could not be recognised as such. In 1998, after a change of government, Slovak authorities have again recognised Roma as a national minority. In Poland, the state has failed thus far to clarify whether Roma are considered an ethnic group or a national minority. In Poland, national minority and ethnicity categories represent statuses, to which the state attaches legal implications; i.e. national minorities have certain set of rights, while ethnic groups do not.
  5. This paper does not address the existing advisory level of Roma policy making in the Czech and Slovak context.
  6. In the article by Mirga and Gheorghe, the term "Romani representatives" is implicitly given a broader meaning than merely elected officials.
  7. Mirga and Gheorghe differentiate between several factions of Romani elite: old communist Romani apparatchiks; younger, university-educated Romani individuals, who re-discovered their identity; traditional Romani leaders and the newest generation of Romani activists of the 1990s, devoted to using human rights rhetoric and mechanisms. In addition to Roma active in official structures of the communist states, there were also Romani intellectuals who were actively involved in cooperation with the dissident, opposition organisations, i.e. in Czechoslovakia with Charter 77.
  8. This said, one has to keep in mind that the increase in number of Romani representatives is also partly a result of political opportunism. In the newly democratic conditions, to be a Romani representative has been approached, by some, as a full-time job.
  9. The Czech government officially recognises the Romani activists as Roma representatives, that means those who claim to be Roma representatives are recognised. For more information see Dopln?ní informace o pln?ní zásad stanovených Rámcovou úmluvou o ochran? národnostních men?in podle ?l. 25 odstavce 1 Úmluvy (Art. 5), at:
  10. In 2000, for example, according to information from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, there were five Romani Members of Parliament, 20 Romani mayors and 400 Romani municipal councillors altogether in the OSCE states (ODIHR workshop on Romani political participation, Prague, November 30-December 1, 2000).
  11. Parliamentary Assembly, Recommendation 1557 (2002), at:
  12. Speech of Ms Josephine Verspaget, former Chair of the Specialist group on Roma/Gypsies, Council of Europe at Session 4: Role of Co-operation between OSCE, Institutions, Governments, Intergovernmental and Nongovernmental organisations, OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Roma and Sinti: Report. Vienna April, 10-11, 2003, p. 53.
  13. Ibid., p. 53.
  14. See Vláda ?eské Republiky. "Koncepce politiky vlády v??i p?íslu?níkám romské komunity, napomáhající jejich integraci do spole nosti". 14 June, 2000, electronic text available at:
  15. See Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration. "Pilot Government Programme for the Roma Community in the Ma?opolska Province for the years 2001-2003". Warsaw, February 2001, electronic text available at:
  16. See Stratégia vlády Slovenskej republiky na rie?enie problémov rómskej národnostnej men?iny a súbor opatrení na jej realizáciu, I. Etapa 27 September, 1999.
  17. See Report of the 1999 OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Roma and Sinti Issues, at:
  18. Address by Max van der Stoel to the OSCE/ODIHR Supplementary Meeting on Roma and Sinti Issues, Vienna, September 6, 1999, at:
  19. Ibid.
  20. See OSCE. Background Paper Summarising and Analysing Information Gathered During the Project through participation of Romani STOs in the OSCE Election Observation Missions and Prague Workshop on Romani Political Participation, available at:, pp.3-8.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. See Project on Ethnic Relations. Leadership, Representation and the Status of the Roma. Krakow, Poland, March 9-10, 2001, at:
  24. Debate centred also around trans-national representation possibilities, such as the initiative forwarded by the President of the Republic of Finland, Tarja Halonen, to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, on January 24, 2001, which proposed the creation of a consultative assembly of Roma at the pan-European level.
  25. Ibid.
  26. See Constitution of the Republic of Hungary, Article 68(4), at: and Act LXXVII of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities, Chapters 3 and 4, at:
  27. Roma, who constitute about 5 percent of the Hungarian population, have always been underrepresented in the national parliament. In the 1994 parliament, for example, there were two Romani representatives; no Romani representative was elected in the 1998 parliamentary elections; and four were elected in the 2002 parliamentary elections.
  28. Interview with two R


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