Will the government survive the opposition’s landslide victory in the regional and Senate elections?

Social Democrats, photo: CTK

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.”

Social Democrats,  photo: CTK
Do you think that the opposition’s landslide victory means that Czechs have had enough of the reform policies of the current government?

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?

Mirek Topolánek and Ivan Langer,  photo: CTK
Jan Macháček: “Well, I don’t think the government has any reason to resign; on the other hand it certainly won’t be easy. Mr Topolánek should say that, even though it wasn’t such a landslide four years ago, when it was the Civic Democrats who won nearly all of the regions, the Social Democrats were not pushed to an early general election, and they continued to govern as the major party in the coalition government. On the other hand, it is clear that the voters are sending some message, and the high turnout shows that the message is quite strong. So Mr Topolánek should make some changes to his government; but I also think it’s going to be extremely complicated for him to do so as the number of coalition MPs is very unstable, as is support for the prime minister within his own party. He would perhaps like to make ministers Ivan Langer and Tomáš Julínek resign but all of them represent important party factions, so any changes to the government are extremely risky.”

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?

Jaroslav Plesl
Jaroslav Plesl: “I don’t think so, I wouldn’t bet a penny on Mr Topolánek today. It’s not in fact the election results that are the biggest problem for him – these weren’t general elections on the fate of the central government – but his biggest problem is the situation within his own party. The opposition within his own party has grown so strong that they will eventually force him to resign. It may not happen this week but I think it will happen after the second round of the senate elections.”

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?

Jiří Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Jan Macháček: “I don’t know, perhaps Jaroslav would laugh at me but I unlike him, I don’t believe that this coalition government will end. My prediction is that with some changes, perhaps with a change to the position of the prime minister, it might continue. The head of the Social Democrats Jiří Paroubek also said that this government could perhaps go on with someone else as the prime minister. But if a caretaker government is put together, it’s clear that it will be a cabinet which would still more or less have to depend on the support of the Social Democrats. Although I don’t think it would be to the advantage of the Social Democrats to play an active role in such a government. I’m not saying that everything I say will happen but I think that this government will make it over the EU presidency. If it doesn’t, I imagine things are going to be extremely complicated. Mobilizing many competent officials and diplomats in a few weeks’ time, who will be able to manage the presidency, is not going to be easy.”

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.”

Photo: CTK
The current government has also one issue on the agenda to do with both national and international security, and that is the positioning of a US radar base in the Czech Republic, as part of their anti-missile defence shield in Europe. Do you think that this particular issue is dead as well?

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.”