Possibility of grand coalition is hotly debated issue

Jan Zahradil

General elections are less than three months away and the current state of voter preferences indicates that neither the ruling Social Democrats nor the opposition Civic Democrats may be in a position to form a majority government. Yet, the very idea of a grand coalition remains taboo. The suggestion that the Civic and Social Democrats could enter into a grand coalition in order to change the electoral system from proportional to majority - made by MEP Jan Zahradil last week - sparked heated denials from both parties.

Jan Zahradil
Daniela Lazarova has been following developments and joins me now in the studio. So Daniela has the grand coalition scenario been firmly ruled out?

Well, Linda both parties have gone to great pains to do so. The issue was thrashed to death in political debates over the weekend and both the Social and Civic Democrats claim that although a grand coalition might be the easy way out of a stalemate, they would be betraying their political programmes and betraying their supporters by entering into such a deal. The Social Democrat PM said it would be a "tragic mistake" and a senior Civic Democratic Party official said the chances of it happening were "practically nil". Having said that, the two parties are clearly defending their interests here - and the fact that Mr.Zahradil spoke as he did and the fact that President Klaus is allegedly not opposed to a grand coalition has sown a seed of doubt in people's minds. We asked political analyst Jiri Pehe whether a grand coalition could benefit the country in any way:

"The possible success or failure of a grand coalition depends on whether the two parties decide to use it for the purpose of dividing the spoils of power or whether they decide to use it to implement a reform programme. In such a case we could see some reasonable compromises in areas such as the pension reform or the health care reform. Moreover these are compromises that should last because if such reforms are implemented by a grand coalition they would not be challenged by the next government."

Well, that's a very positive outlook, but we heard from Mr. Zahradil that the purpose of such a coalition would be primarily to change the electoral system from proportional to majority to prevent future stalemates and that is less likely to please voters isn't it ?

Communist Party, photo: CTK
No, it wouldn't. And more than the public the idea has struck fear into the hearts of the smaller parties whose position in Czech politics would be marginalized by a change of the electoral system. Indeed, it seems to have thrown the communists into a bit of a turmoil - they are now torn between maintaining their leftist policy line and offering to support the Social Democrats after the elections in order to prevent a grand coalition which- at best - would reduce their influence and in the worst case might force them out of politics entirely. So they are walking a bit of a tightrope at this moment.

Would it be that simple - to change the electoral system?

Not really. The Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats have tried to do so in the past and failed. According to Czech law this is a constitutional amendment so in addition to a majority in the lower house they would also need to win a majority in the Senate. Now I'm sure that as an MEP Mr. Zahradil knows this and so the question is why stir the political waters as he did. It could have been a tactical move calculated to bring the Communists closer to the Social Democrats and so to damage the latter's image ahead of the elections. Or the party could just have been testing the waters. But in any case the very possibility of a grand coalition will certainly make the smaller parties work twice as hard to bolster their position in the remaining three months before the elections.