Constitutional Court repeals electoral law clauses favouring big parties, hamstringing coalitions

Czech Parliament, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

The political landscape in the Czech Republic is set to shift immensely. The Constitutional Court on Wednesday announced it has annulled aspects of electoral law favouring bigger political parties, including the distribution of seats and thresholds of voter support coalitions must achieve to enter Parliament. Lawmakers must now rush to agree amendments ahead of the election in October.

Proportional representation systems aim to allocate seats to parties approximately in proportion to the number of votes received. The D’Hondt method, in place in the Czech system, uses a highest averages method for allocating seats and thus a type of party-list proportional representation.

In and of itself, Chief Justice Pavel Rychetský of the Constitutional Court said in announcing the electoral law rulings, the D’Hondt system is not problematic.

Pavel Rychetský,  photo: ČTK/Václav Šálek

“However, having 14 electoral regions of unequal size in the Czech Republic, in tandem with the D’Hondt method of allocating mandates, does significantly undermine the principle of equality of electoral votes. Acting on a proposal by a group of senators, in the interest of equal suffrage, the Constitutional Court has therefore decided to annual a section of election law on the proportional allocation of seats.”

In addition, the Constitutional Court judges annulled a clause requiring each member of a coalition – whether a party, so-called movement or other political entity – to garner 5 percent of the vote. In doing so, judges ruled in favour of the proposal submitted by 21 senators from various groupings who argued that existing rules disadvantage smaller parties – and especially coalitions.

Until now, a coalition of two entities, for example, would therefore need to win 10 percent of the total vote to win a mandate in the 200-seat lower house of Parliament, three entities would need 15 percent, and so on. That aspect of Czech electoral law, the judges found, violates the principle of equal suffrage by in effect penalising like-minded political groupings from joining forces in a bid to take on larger ones.

The ruling is bad news for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who has struggled to find coalition partners. In the last election, held in October 2017, Mr Babiš’s ANO party won 78 seats with just over 19,000 votes for each mandate. By comparison, the opposition party of Mayors and Independents (STAN) needed 44,000 votes for each of the six mandates it won. 

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Support for the ruling ANO party is currently at 26.5 percent – its lowest level since the October 2017 elections – according to an opinion poll by the Median agency released on Tuesday. Together, STAN and Pirate Party are at 25 percent, and a centre-right block formed by the Civic Democrats (ODS), Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and TOP 09 (both EPP) are at 18.5 percent, according to Median.

With the new Constitutional Court ruling, even much smaller coalitions could further erode ANO’s majority in the lower house of Parliament. At the moment, Mr Babiš heads a minority government with the left-leaning Social Democrats (ČSSD), which relies on tolerance by the largely unreformed Communists (KSČM) in exchange for policy concessions. (According to the Median poll, both the Social Democrats and the Communists are both polling at 7 percent).

The deadline for filing candidate lists is in August, two months before the October election. In the coming months, coalition-building will be front and centre on the Czech political scene.