Who stands where on early elections?

Photo: CTK

On Monday, more than three months after the general elections in June, President Vaclav Klaus appointed a new Civic Democratic minority cabinet led by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. However, even before its appointment commentary from all sides of the political spectrum indicated that no one expects this government to survive long—perhaps only for 30 days if the initial vote of confidence, expected to be held on October 4, fails. The Civic Democrats are themselves saying that their intention is to bring the country to early elections. In this week's Talking Point, we look at the issue of early elections, what they mean for the various political parties, who supports them and who is opposed.

The Czech constitution outlines various ways that the country could hold early elections, and political analyst Jiri Pehe explains how early elections are most likely to come about:

"To get to early elections in the Czech Republic is extremely difficult. The constitution is basically quite rigid on this point and I'm afraid that if we are to have early elections we would have to go through all three unsuccessful consecutive attempts to form governments. It is not very likely that we will see the solution that we saw in 1998, when political parties agreed to shorten the tenure of the parliament and call early elections with the help of a special constitutional amendment. That would require the cooperation of the Social Democratic Party and the Social Democrats are not ready to support any such solution. And also, I think they are not ready to support any other solution that would move the country to early elections."

Bohuslav Sobotka, deputy leader of the Social Democratic Party, confirms this position:

Bohuslav Sobotka and Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK
"We think that there is no reason for early elections. All three attempts at forming a government have not been tried, and only in the event that all three of these would be unsuccessful is there a reason to talk about using early elections. Until that time, the Social Democratic Party will not support the idea of early elections."

As they did during the post-election negotiating process, the Social Democratic Party still maintains that early elections would be possible in the autumn of 2008, to be held jointly with the scheduled regional elections. This would significantly reduce campaign costs, which would otherwise run up to the one billion crown range (over $45 million US) if general elections were to be held independently. Though there are other reasons that the Social Democratic Party is opposed to the notion of early elections in 2007. Jiri Pehe explains:

Photo: CTK
"I think they may be opposed to early elections for two reasons. First—and it is the official reason that we hear from Mr. Paroubek—they say that to hold early elections now when an attempt to form a government was not made seriously would be in a way undemocratic, that people delivered certain electoral results and politicians should work with those results and find a solution and not force people to vote again. Then the second reason is that they may feel that at this point opinion polls are really showing an increase in support for the Civic Democratic Party, and perhaps they want to see what the results of the municipal elections and senate elections at the end of October will be and then they will decide—they may change their mind. But at this point early elections would not be to the advantage of the Social Democratic Party, so obviously what we are witnessing is a sort of jockeying for power."

Could you speculate as to whether or not that disadvantage is closely associated with the figure of Jiri Paroubek, or is it some larger phenomenon?

"I think that at this point it is partly Jiri Paroubek, who is seen by parts of the public as someone who blocked any productive post-election solution. Opinion polls show that he is blamed for the failure of post-election talks more than Mr. Topolanek. He is also still being blamed by many people for making a rather inflammatory speech on the second day of elections when he compared the Civic Democrats to the Communist Party in 1948, and he may want to wait for the public to forget some of these things. At the same time I think that he may want to see what kind of developments take place in the two smaller parties because Mr. Paroubek and the Social Democrats do not need to win in early elections—if we do have early elections. They need to have a majority with the Communist Party and in case one of the two small parties—that is the Greens and the Christian Democrats—will not make it to parliament this time, then the Social Democrats and the Communists are almost certain to have a majority."

Where the small parties in the lower house are concerned, on Monday the Christian Democrats made an about-face and changed their position regarding early elections; previously unsupportive, the Christian Democrats now say that they will support early elections as a way out of the political stalemate. Early elections are also strongly advocated by the Green Party—a first-timer in the lower house, with a mandate of 6 seats. Deputy leader of the Greens, Petr Stepanek, explains his party's outlook:

"We see the failure of the major parties to deal with the mandates from the public, and at the moment we don't see another solution than to form a temporary government and call new elections early next year."

Martin Bursik, photo: CTK
Over the weekend Green Party leader Martin Bursik said that he would like to see all three attempts at forming a government go through—and that he expects they will fail—and only after that has happened should there be early elections. Now, some commentators have of course speculated that in this case there is first of all the danger of the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats finally coming to an agreement and forming some sort of a grand coalition. Or second of all, that the smaller parties such as the Greens could be left out in the case of early elections, the longer they are delayed. How do you see these possibilities?

"First of all, the constitution is not a piece of paper to be used one day and thrown away on another. We feel very strongly that the President and the representation elected in the elections should really adhere to the constitution and go through the attempts. We have a very good example from Slovakia eight years ago when [Vladimir] Meciar won elections and as undemocratic as he was, the President asked him first to form a government. After he failed, Dzurinda's cabinet went through and ruled for eight years. I think it was a very good example of the President not liking who got elected, yet he followed the constitution and it should be the case here too."

Jiri Pehe comments on what President Klaus is likely to do if Mr. Topolanek's minority Civic Democratic government fails to win a vote of confidence:

Mirek Topolanek and Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK
"Mr. Klaus is not known for always keeping his word on political issues, but I think that in this case he may actually want to give Mr. Paroubek a chance to form a government for political reasons, because if Mr. Paroubek is not given a chance to form a government he could use it quite easily as political capital of his own before the early elections. He could simply claim that he was betrayed by the President and the Civic Democratic Party, and that it would have been fair for him to be asked to form a government, and that the principle of earnest was violated, and things of that sort. We know that Mr. Klaus himself managed to pull his party back from political abyss in 1998 when he claimed that he had been betrayed by his political allies and by President Havel. He used this political martyrdom, so to speak, to actually reform the ODS [Civic Democrats] and make it a strong party again."

While the two large parties—the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats—currently hold diametrically opposing views on the question of early elections, the risk for small parties is surely bigger. Yet as it stands, both the Christian Democrats and the Greens are putting on a brave face.