Opposition Social Democrats score resounding victory in regional elections

Jiří Paroubek and his wife, photo: CTK

The opposition Social Democrats dealt Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s centre-right government a severe blow in the weekend’s regional and Senate elections. The main opposition party won hands down in all 13 regions and secured a strong lead in the first round of the Senate elections, threatening to tip the balance of power in the upper chamber ahead of key votes on the Lisbon treaty, the US radar and social reform. With the government’s fragile majority in the lower house and a no-confidence vote in the cabinet due on Wednesday, there is speculation that the prime minister’s days in office could be numbered.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
It was a sobering experience for the governing coalition. Just hours after polling stations closed it was clear that the opposition Social Democrats were racing ahead in both the regional and Senate elections. By the evening they had a landslide victory, winning in all 13 regions where voting took place and taking 36 percent of the vote. The ruling Civic Democrats – who had held 12 regions – got only 23 percent and neither of the smaller coalition partners fared well, the Christian Democrats won a mere 7 percent, while the Green Party was a non-starter. Shortly after the result was announced the prime minister conceded defeat.

“We have suffered a defeat and it is now up to us to analyze the reasons why. We made mistakes and we underestimated the election campaign, but I would stress that no party in government has ever won the regional elections – it’s the price you pay for being at the helm. Politics is not just about victories – it is also about losses. And in this case we are the losers.”

Jiří Paroubek and his wife,  photo: CTK
The Social Democrats’ resounding success in these elections is attributed to the fact that the leading opposition party cleverly turned them into a referendum on the future of the Topolánek government and its reform programme. Having promised to reverse what they could of the government’s unpopular reforms – and listen to public opinion on issues such as the US radar and sending more Czech troops to foreign missions – the Social Democrats achieved their goal: an unexpectedly high turnout of 40 percent and a thumbs down for the prime minister. Opposition leader Jiří Paroubek said his party would now insist on the government being changed.

“This election was a referendum on the Topolánek government and I cannot image how a government with 23 percent support can continue to rule the country and even take up the EU presidency next year. It is time to consider a change. This prime minister is an embarrassment to us, both here and in Brussels, and the Social Democrats will not tolerate the cabinet in its present set up.”

Jiří Paroubek with the Communists' leader Vojtěch Filip,  photo: CTK
Although clearly shaken by the outcome of the election, the prime minister is in fighting spirit. He has refused to resign or even step down as party leader and says that he is certain the coalition government will survive Wednesday’s no-confidence vote. However, much depends on the outcome of the second round of elections to the Senate and whether the ruling party can maintain its narrow majority in the upper chamber. Without it the government would find it hard to implement its domestic and foreign policy goals – and would inevitably become something of a lame duck.

Meanwhile, the triumphant Social Democrats are already initiating coalition talks in the regions, demanding all 13 governor’s posts and saying they will work with anyone who helps them fulfil their policy priorities – not excepting the Communists, with whom they have a comfortable majority in all thirteen regions.