Voters shake-up status quo, pave way for government of “fiscal responsibility”

Bohuslav Sobotka, Petr Nečas, Karel Schwarzenberg, Vojtěch Filip, Radek John, photo: CTK

In the final weeks ahead of the election, polling agencies in the country repeatedly predicted a major win for Jiří Paroubek’s Social Democrats but the reality at the weekend was different. The Social Democrats did come first, but only barely, far from the overwhelming success they had expected. Within hours of the polls closing, it became clear that the party had a marginal chance of forming the next government and that instead the country was now headed for a centre-right coalition promising wide-reaching reforms.

Ahead of the vote, few people thought this would be an election that would change the face of Czech politics and dramatically shake-up the status quo – but that is exactly what happened. The shock was obvious only minutes after polling stations closed, when exit polls showed the country’s two largest parties – the Social and Civic Democrats – neck-and-neck. Within hours it was clear to the Social Democrats that not they but a humbled Civic Democratic Party (which like them, lost hundreds of thousands of voters from the last election) would have the best shot at forming the next government together with newcomers TOP 09 and Public Affairs. Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby spoke to Social Democrat MP Jan Hamáček on the day about his party’s unexpected result:

Karel Schwarzenberg  (TOP 09),  Petr Nečas  (Civic Democrats),  Petr Tluchoř  (Civic Democrats),  Miroslav Kalousek  (TOP 09),  left to right,  photo: CTK
“It is a surprise – there is no reason to hide it. It is a surprise. It seems to me that the people have voted against the two major parties and obviously TOP 09 and Public Affairs benefitted. I didn’t expect it but that is how people voted and it is our task to deal with it.”

Why do you think it is that voters turned away from the two traditional big parties here?

“It’s too early to say and obviously this is something which has to be examined in detail, but I think that maybe the campaign was too negative and too controversial and people just didn’t like it and opted for the third option.”

Political analysts have suggested numerous reasons for the Social Democrat’s Pyrrhic victory, one of the most widely-held being that voters turned against the highly polarising figure of the Social Democratic leader Jiří Paroubek himself. Political analyst Jan Urban says, in his view, the Social Democrats made a huge mistake:

Jiří Paroubek with his wife Petra,  photo: CTK
“The Left, meaning the Social Democrats, has committed political suicide by allowing Jiří Paroubek to dominate the party in a manner that was highly undemocratic and equally populist. He is connected with corruption, with very undemocratic moves within the party and this is just the end of it. I’ve known the man for 20 years and I think he is in a state of absolute shock. I think that he knows by now that this is his political death. He has no future at the top of the Social Democratic Party.”

Indeed, within hours Mr Paroubek officially resigned over the poor result and with him gone and the Social Democrats admitting that there is very little chance they will be able to form a government, the spotlight has understandably shifted to the election’s “real” winners: the Civic Democrats, Top 09 and Public Affairs. On the right of the political spectrum, they now hold a comfortable majority: 118 mandates out of a possible 200 and a coalition that could easily push through new measures. TOP 09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg had this to say:

“It is necessary to form a coalition which is willing to carry through the necessary reforms that the country needs. Right or centre, up or down, that’s not of consequence: what’s important is that the coalition be ready to push through the necessary changes.”

Civic Democrat MP Alexandr Vondra agreed this was a top priority:

TOP 09's Karel Schwarzenberg,  Petr Gazdík,  Miroslav Kalousek  (left to right),  photo: CTK
“I think that the centre-right parties have been given a broad mandate to continue with reforms and to, let’s say, clean house. I think that the second message is that people have clearly said that the old apparatchik style of the Social Democrats is over. And third, is the message to our own party, that is must continue in its own internal reforms if it doesn’t want to lose the position of the key centre-right party in Czech politics. We can do this, we are ready to form a coalition of fiscal responsibility with the other parties. This is the message that voters have sent.”

Should talks already underway on forming a coalition prove successful, the next government could focus on priorities analysts and politicians say the country needs to face squarely as soon as possible: putting public finances in order, tackling the enormous deficit, battling corruption, and effecting structural reforms. Just a few days ago, a coalition willing to take those steps was deemed highly unlikely, but voters proved the pundits, pollsters and some politicians wrong. Many observers now acknowledge the voters made a brave choice: opting for tough reforms and future belt-tightening now to put the country back on track. Political analyst Jan Urban sees TOP 09’s finish – third overall with almost 17 percent – as perhaps the most important development of this year’s election. Here’s what he had to say:

“After 20 years of increasingly populist messages from the big parties, here comes a party that promised only ‘blood, sweat and tears’, to quote Winston Churchill. Specifically, the response from the young generation is the promise for the future for this country.”