German election results: fresh hope for Socialists and warning for Civic Democrats?

Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel, photo: CTK

The Czech Republic's neighbour to the west, Germany, is still trying to work out what to do in the wake of its indecisive parliamentary election on Sunday. The coming days and weeks will see some tough horse-trading. The election has been closely followed here in the Czech Republic, not least because this country - also with a Social Democrat led government - has its own elections coming up in nine months' time. Could next year's parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic lead to a similar stalemate?

Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel,  photo: CTK
A few months ago, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats trailed 20 percentage points behind the party's biggest rivals, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. But in the election they were one percentage point behind. Parallels have been drawn with the situation in the Czech Republic. In April, when Social Democrat Jiri Paroubek was appointed Prime Minister, his party's popularity was also 20 points behind the main opposition right-of-centre Civic Democrats. The results of a latest opinion poll conducted by the STEM agency suggest the gap is down to 11 points. Jan Hartl is the head of STEM:

"We were puzzled by the situation, indicated by our July survey, that the political crisis suffered by the Social Democrats under prime minister Stanislav Gross was over and that [his successor] Jiri Paroubek was doing remarkably well. He moved party preferences from 15% to 21%."

Mirek Topolanek
Opinion polls suggest that if parliamentary elections were held today, the Civic Democrats could join forces with the conservative Christian Democrats to form a ruling coalition that would enjoy a majority in parliament. But it is still nine months to the elections and with the Social Democrats seeming to gain ground, should Germany be a warning to Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolanek?

"It's a possibility. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) is constantly high in the preferences but their trend shows no dynamics and there are commentaries that their performance seems to be rather heavy, difficult to understand, and without any fresh ideas, etc. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats' preferences are still much lower but are showing a certain tendency to increase."

Party leaders are also very important. Mr Paroubek leads in the popularity ladder with some 63% while Mr Topolanek only enjoys a little under 50%. We can compare this to neighbouring Germany, where Mr Schroeder has charisma and knows how to play with the media, very much like Mr Paroubek. On the other hand, Angela Merkel is much shier and has not been received that well by the public. Mr Topolanek may not be shy but he's also not as charismatic as his rival.

Prime Minister Jiri Paorubek,  photo: CTK
"It's true. I think that the analogy is very strong. To a lot of people who are not that familiar with all the intricacies of politics rely mainly on a strong leader."

The opposition right in Germany and the Czech Republic have been promising change, especially economic reform; Gerhard Schroeder has managed to score points by warning citizens of the consequences of such change, labelling German citizens as the opposition's "guinea pigs" - a strategy that Mr Paroubek has also adopted.

But Mr Topolanek says support for the right is strong enough not to be influenced by the developments in neighbouring Germany. He adds that the Civic Democrats still have plenty of time to promote and explain to citizens what their programme entails and how they can benefit from it.

So, how likely is it that the Czech elections take a similar turn to those in Germany? Social Democrat and member of the European Parliament Libor Roucek says with his party's growing popularity, the idea is not so far fetched as in nine months time a coalition between the Civic Democrats and the Christian Democrats may no longer have enough seats to form a majority in parliament and the Social Democrats too could find it difficult to form their own minority government; this could force both leading parties to consider forming a grand left-right coalition:

"Perhaps as a temporary solution, we could even have a grand coalition. This, by the way could be the outcome of negotiations in Germany. So the situation could be similar to that currently in Germany."