A look back at the pre-election campaigns

Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek

Many pundits in the Czech Republic agree that this year's pre-election campaigns were - at least as far as the country's two largest parties were concerned - among the most aggressive in recent memory, the ruling Social Democrats and their opposition rivals the Civic Democrats vying for Czech votes. It is widely expected that one of these parties will form the country's next government. The campaign season was of course not just about those two - or their leaders Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek. But, in a way it might as well have been.

Prime Minster Jiri Paroubek  (right) and Gerhard Schroeder,  photo: CTK
So, what kind of a campaign was it? For the Social Democrats - an aggressive one but also an emotional turn of events: suffering a plummet in the ratings just a year ago, they stormed back under the leadership of the man they nickname the Bulldozer, Jiri Paroubek, a prime minister who has pulled no punches against his election rivals. His tactics and rhetoric could see the Social Democrats win an unprecedented third term. For the Civic Democrats it has also been a tough road: eight years out of government, they are eager to return to power, but their leader Mirek Topolanek has made his campaign less personal. Even so, sociologist Jan Hartl, the head of the Stem polling agency, says:

"This election season can be described as a season full of emotions. If we compare it with the last elections it means that now there are many more attacks on personalities, rather aggressive, and emotions escalated visibly by the end of the campaign. This was the most aggressive campaign season since 1990."

The last week alone saw the leaders of the two largest parties face off in no less than four televised debates. With polling banned by law three days ahead of voting we can only guess at their impact. Until then, final polls by a number of agencies suggested different results with widely differing margins of victory for both parties. A lot theoretically hinges on who led the more effective campaign, as well as personal preference. I asked political scientist Petr Kutilek how he viewed differences in the two parties' approach:

Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
"If we take a look at the visual aspects of the campaign I think that it's interesting to look at the two main parties and see that the Civic Democrats are trying to appear as a team, while the Social Democrats - typically see a single candidate, most often the prime minister, Jiri Paroubek. The Civic Democrats' visuals apparently try to be more inclusive and professional, while the Social Democrats are more 'in your face' and direct."

If the devil is in the details, it is always difficult to guess in advance who got them right -who ultimately will reach more voters. If the Social Democrats have gone largely on the offensive, the Civic Democrats have tried to push their points by largely ignoring the attacks. Still, journalist Erik Best suggests both parties may have fallen into something of a quagmire, that he indicates could open opportunities for some of the others:

"One of the risks in such a negative campaign, especially in the final week, is that it can backfire and can work against both the Social Democrats and also the right-wing party. Voters might say 'this is just more of the same, we've seen it all before" That could work in favour of the Greens certainly, who could get more than an expected 10 percent, as well as the Communists, who could better even than 18 percent.

Here then is how the election seems to be shaping up: the two main parties, the Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democrats fighting for the largest bloc of voters - around 30 percent, followed by the Communists, and somewhere behind them the Greens and the Christian Democrats - those are the five, barring any major surprises that are expected to get into Parliament. What kind of coalition can be formed will depend who gets over the finish line. We'll have to wait and see.

Photo: CTK
RP: Jan, thanks. Now, regarding the campaigns - you mentioned the style - what about the issues - did they come across?

Jan: "Let me put it this way: the prime minister facing Mr Topolanek four times in one week did get across some of the issues - even by virtue of repetition. I think voters did have a chance to see where the parties differ. Here's what political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova had to say:

"The election campaign was very aggressive, on the other hand I would say that for the first time real topics were discussed: the pension system, health care, taxes, so for the first time I think voters will be able to decide with some rationality."

We should know who led the more successful election campaign by Saturday evening local time.