Preferential votes turn party ballots upside down

In the Czech general elections, voters shook up the political scene by turning away from the major parties and supporting newcomers. But the change did not stop there: in a new phenomenon of Czech politics, thousands of preferential votes sent many of the old, familiar faces in the lower house home, to be replaced by outsiders from the bottom of party’s ballots.

The headquarters of the recently formed conservative party TOP 09 echoed with cheers as the general election results came in on Saturday afternoon. With 17 percent of the vote, the party benefited from a swing of voters from some of the established parties in favour of newcomers.

Jan Pajer
But even the parties that have dominated Czech politics in the last decade – the Social and Civic Democrats – experienced a new phenomenon in Czech elections: preferential voting. Never before have voters given so much support to candidates at the bottom of the ballots, sending them to the lower house instead of political veterans at the top. One of those jumpers is 29-year-old Jan Pajer, who became an MP despite running at the very bottom of the Civic Democrat ticket in the Pardubice region in eastern Bohemia.

“At the very first moment, it was a big shock for me because I had not expected it in my wildest dreams. It never occurred to me it could happen. I did not feel much else besides shock. But now I can say I am beginning to look forward to new experiences, and the new job.”

Ivan Langer,  photo: CTK
Voters were given the opportunity to circle up to four candidates on the ballot. If they gained more than 5 percent of such preferential votes, they jumped over the person ahead of them. And it worked – Czechs used 3.7 million preferential votes in this election and made sure that outsiders beat some of the veterans of parliamentary politics. In Prague, the unpopular Civic Democrat mayor Pavel Bém ran as number two, but was relegated to fourth place. Civic Democrat deputy leader Ivan Langer, who headed the ballot in the Olomouc region, did not make it to the lower house at all. And in Karlovy Vary, both Social and Civic Democrat ballot leaders, tainted by corruption scandals, did not become MPs either.

The man who popularized preferential voting is the Czech-born, Sweden-based scientist František Janouch, who founded an initiative called Defenestration 2010. He says he got the idea when he saw the disillusionment of people in the Czech Republic – and that he’s happy it worked so well.

“We ‘circled out’ – that’s now a new expression in the Czech Republic – several politicians who had been in Parliament for 15 or 20 years. This was certainly successful, and it created a precedent for the next elections. Politicians had been used to having a permanent seat in Parliament or the government. Now they see they can be easily ‘circled out’ of political life.”

Preferential voting often took by surprise both the successful candidates and those who were pushed out. In eastern Bohemia, one such veteran MP even tried to persuade the newly-elected deputies to give up their seats so that he would get in. Meanwhile, many of those who did not expect to be elected, will now have to prepare to serve a four year term in the Chamber of Deputies.