Election “super year” reshaping Czech politics

Photo: European Commission

Czechs are living a political super year with three elections within the space of 12 months. After the regional and Senate elections and elections to the European Parliament, political parties are gearing up for early general elections in October. Analysts say that at the end of all this, the Czech political scene could emerge in a whole new perspective.

Ever since the establishment of the Czech Republic in 1993, the country’s political scene has been dominated by two strong parties – the centre-right Civic Democrats and the leftist Social Democrats. The regional and Senate elections in the autumn of 2008 saw an overwhelming victory of the then opposition Social Democrats. Feeling powerful, they brought down the government run by the Civic Democrats in the middle of the Czech EU presidency. This risky move, often denounced as irresponsible, has had two major consequences – a low turnout in the elections to the European Parliament earlier this month, and the defeat of the Social Democrats at the hands of their rightwing rivals. But political analyst Petr Just, from Prague’s Metropolitan University believes that the race in October’s early general election will be much tighter than that.

“A high electoral turnout will of course improve the position of the Social Democrats, so the chances will again be about fifty-fifty. It will all depend on how the parties will behave and perform during the campaign ahead of the elections. Now, they are both in fact non-governmental parties; neither of them is directly represented in the government which limits the instruments of the parties to attack each other because of the individual steps and politics of the current caretaker government.”

In the European elections, only two other parties made it past the five-percent threshold – the Christian Democrats, a traditional centrist party, and the Communists. The latter are considered something of a political pariah in Czech politics – they usually collect the protest vote, and have very limited, if any, coalition potential. The Greens, who formed the coalition government after the last elections, only scored some two percent of the vote which led to the resignation of the party’s leader, Martin Bursík. Does this mean that the space between the two big parties has grown smaller? Commentator Bohumil Doležal does not think so.

“No, quite the opposite. The space has grown with the fall of the Greens. It’s the space of unaffiliated voters who are desperately seeking a party they could trust. But they always either find a party with no real chance of success, or a group that only suits them to some extent. That was the problem of the Greens because they attracted a lot of liberals of the Havel kind, and even people with conservative values who in the past voted for the Civic Alliance and later for the Freedom Union.”

The space in the middle might be up for grabs again, and a new, recently formed party, has the ambition to fill it. Set up by Miroslav Kalousek, a former influential Christian Democrat who left his party because he did not like what he labelled as a shift to the left, the new TOP 09 party aims to win-over right-wing, urban, educated voters. Bohumil Doležal has nicknamed them “the Civic Democrats with a human face”.

“Well, I would say they do have a chance to draw a lot of votes from that space. As they have a chance to attract some of the supporters of the Christian Democrats, and perhaps even some of the Civic Democrat vote, the party does have good prospects. Unlike the Greens with their environmental agenda, the new party it is a relevant, right-wing political force.”

Shortly after the new party was presented to the public, an opinion poll suggested that as many as 40 percent of voters might support them in the coming election. I spoke to Jefim Fištejn, the managing editor of Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He says that although the reality might be more sober for the new party, their chances are very good.

“The Civic Democrats have recently shifted a little towards the centre and left some space to the right of themselves open to new subjects. So I think TOP 09 will probably get a share of the traditional Civic Democrat electorate, and partly also win-over former Green voters. Together, this will make if not the 40 percent – I think the figure is little exaggerated – but TOP will probably get enough votes to enter Parliament.”

Analyzing these extraordinarily positive ratings, one Czech magazine asked – what is it that TOP 09 has and others don’t? The answer was – the new party has Karel Schwarzenberg. The former foreign minister, nominated by the Greens, and one of the country’s most popular politicians linked up with Miroslav Kalousek and became the party’s leader. The move surprised many, but not all. Bohumil Doležal again.

“Frankly speaking, I was not surprised. From Mr Kalousek’s point of view, it’s a clever move which opens the party to unaffiliated voters who are not left-wing but will never vote for the Civic Democrats. As far as Mr Schwarzenberg is concerned, I think he acted both properly and pragmatically. As long as the Greens party stood a chance – that is until the election to the European Parliament – he stood by them, and as soon as it turned out that it was all over for the Greens, he joined Mr Kalousek.”

Mr Doležal also points out that the possible success of the new party could create serious problems both for the Christian Democrats and the dominant Civic Democrats, who are struggling to deal with tensions inside their own party.

“As far as the Civic Democrats are concerned, things are a little more complicated. They are under pressure from the Euro-sceptic group of President Klaus who’s claiming that the party was stolen from him. Certain danger also comes from the new party TOP 09 that could lure away some of their supporters. If these two tensions weaken the party considerably, it will in effect lead to the collapse of the right wing and the Social Democrats and the Communists will win the election by a landslide.”

The campaign ahead of both the regional and Senate elections and the elections to the European Parliament focused on topics that had little to do with regional and European issues, respectively. But ahead of the EP elections, there were many who listened to what the Euro-sceptic Czech president, Václav Klaus, had to say. Several small parties emerged with one common issue that topped their agenda – opposition to the Lisbon treaty. The most vital among them seems to be the group around MEP Jana Bobošíková. Her party, called Sovereignty, fell short of winning a seat in the European Parliament by only a few thousand votes. Jefim Fištejn thinks that in October, she might be back with a vengeance.

“If anybody has a chance of getting in, it’s Ms Bobošíková because she produces a kind of very brutal, populist propaganda which may meet with a response from Czech voters. She could also manage to unite around her some of the other smaller parties. Otherwise, I don’t think any other extreme right-wing party stands a chance.”

On Monday, several small parties who did not make it to the European Parliament said they were thinking a forming a coalition. They even came up with a name – Civic Forum 09, a direct reference to the movement which took power from the Communists in 1989. Bohumil Doležal came up with a “Doležal’s law” which says that if two small parties come together, the new group will be smaller and less significant than any of the original ones. Petr Just, for his part, agrees.

“It’s typical for small Czech parties that when they try to form some kind of alliance and unite, they always fail and break up over who will be the leader of the common unit.”

The Czech Republic has for quite some time now been going through a permanent electoral campaign. With the general election approaching, Petr Just thinks that what lies ahead is bound to be “interesting” – in other words we have not seen the worst yet.

“I would say that today, only three parties can be 100 percent sure that they will get into Parliament. The rest – one, two or three other parties – that’s an open space, which will make for a very interesting electoral campaign and it will be very interesting to watch the elections.”