Will the government survive the opposition’s landslide victory in the regional and Senate elections?
Regional and Senate elections took place in the Czech Republic over the weekend in which the opposition Social Democrats defeated the parties of the governing coalition. The strongest opposition party scored a comprehensive victory, winning in all of the 13 regions of the Czech Republic. Social Democrat candidates also made it to the second round in all but one of the 27 electoral districts for the Senate where the poll was held. The relatively high turnout – just over 40 percent – suggests that Czech voters took these elections more seriously than previous ballots for both the regions and the Senate. To discuss the results of the elections and the effect they may have on the Czech political scene, I am now joined in the studio by Jaroslav Plesl, deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper Lidové Noviny, and Jan Macháček, a columnist for the weekly Respekt.
Jan, why did the coalition parties – the Civic Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Greens – suffer such a bitter defeat?
Jan Macháček: “I think it was above all due to the protest vote but that is typical for every regional election we have had. The difference this time is that it was such a large-scale protest vote because the turnout was over one million people higher than generally expected. It was in the end 40 percent and most of that million of people, who were sort of mobilized, are supporters of the Social Democrats.
Did the Social Democrats win the elections by shifting the focus away from regional topics to the national agenda?
Jaroslav Plesl: “Absolutely. I think that was the crucial moment; that was a very smart decision by the managers of the Social Democrat campaign.”
Jaroslav Plesl: “Absolutely not. I think that would be a misinterpretation of the election results. What we saw was an extra 10 percent of voters going to the polls, voting for the Social Democrats because those people are afraid of reforms. But even though we saw a 40 percent turnout in the elections, there are still 60 percent of voters who did not go and vote. And I’m sure that among those people, at least 10 percent of them would be willing to vote for the Civic Democrats. But they just didn’t show up.”
The situation within the strongest government party, the Civic Democrats, was seriously strained even before the elections. How difficult do you think it will be for the head of the party, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek to weather the storm?
Jaroslav, in your editorial in today’s Lidové Noviny you said that the trouble is only beginning for the Civic Democrats. Do you think that Mr Topolánek will survive?
What will this mean for one of the government’s foreign policy priorities, namely the Czech presidency of the European Union in the first half of January 2009? Is a caretaker government a solution?
Jaroslav Plesl: “There is no reason to laugh; I very much agree with your scenario. But if Mr Topolánek is not in the government and if there are changes in ministerial posts, it will be a completely different government. And I think that even if the Social Democrats will not participate in the government, they will have a huge say in who is going to be in the government, which will definitely affect the cabinet very much, and it will not be the government of Mr Topolánek.”
Jaroslav Plesl: “I don’t think so. You know, Czech governments and political parties in general tend to be very flexible. I think that even though there is going to be a different government, and there might be a completely different government in two years’ time, and even if the Social Democrats are the leading force of the next government, I think that they would somehow be able to reach an agreement on building the radar base in the Czech Republic with the new American administration.”