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2010 Czech Parliamentary Elections: Monkey Cage Election Report

- June 1, 2010

As “promised”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/06/2010_czech_parliamentary_elect.html, here is our “election report”:https://themonkeycage.org/election_reports/ on the 2010 Czech Elections, courtesy of “Professor Andrew Roberts”:http://sites.google.com/site/robertspolisci/ of Northwestern University.

On 28-29 May 2010 Czechs voted for a new parliament. The headline results were a victory for the right which seems likely to form a majority coalition, a surprising defeat for the Social Democrats who were predicted to be win the elections and indeed did come in first but with far less votes than expected, and the success of two new political formations. This summary, however, obscures some of the most interesting aspects of the elections, four of which I would emphasize here.

1. Punishment. Though the elections appear to have yielded a majority right-wing government composed of the Civic Democrats (ODS), TOP 09, and Public Affairs (Veci verejne), voters seemed to be voting against parties more than for them. Of the five parties previously represented in parliament, four saw massive drops in their support and two found themselves outside of parliament (the Greens and the People’s Party). In fact, the People’s Party failed to gain admission to parliament for the first time since WWI. The two major parties, the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats (ODS) saw their vote shares decline, respectively from 32% to 22% and 35% to 20%. Indeed, the Social Democrats were proclaimed the losers of the election despite coming in first and their controversial leader immediately resigned. (The erstwhile head of ODS had been forced out earlier in the spring after impolitic remarks about the Jewish Prime Minister.)

This punishment isn’t too surprising. One would expect voters to be in a punishing mood during an economic crisis which is where the country is today (GDP fell by 4% last year). What was slightly unusual was their willingness to punish all the parliamentary parties (with the exception of the Communists who maintained their 11% share). This is partly due to the severity of the crisis and a sense that the major parties had made themselves too comfortable, but it is also a consequence of the lack of a clear incumbent. The last elections in 2006 ended in an perfectly even 50-50 split between the right and left which was temporarily resolved by defections, but which ultimately ended with a caretaker government that has been running the country for the past year. So rather than simply punishing an incumbent and rewarding the opposition, voters turned against parliament as a whole, a phenomenon that truth be told has been quite common in post-communist Europe.

The dissatisfaction can also be seen in the massive increase in preference voting. Though the Czech Republic uses a standard list PR electoral system, voters can optionally give certain candidates a preference vote which helps them move up the list. The number of preference votes almost doubled compared to 2006 – 3.7 million versus 1.9 million. Voters here seemed to prefer new and uncorrupted faces, particularly of local politicians, and one national leader of ODS even failed to reach parliament despite heading his party’s list.

2. New parties. The lost votes of the existing parties were transferred to several new parties, two of which crossed the 5% for entry into parliament. The biggest success, finishing third with 17% of votes, was TOP 09 (the name is an acronym for Tolerance, Responsibility, Prosperity) which was formed by a former leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party and the popular scion of a former aristocratic family. The party was thus able to build on traditional blocs (both Christian Democratic and liberal intellectuals) but without being connected to the failures of previous governments.

The other victor was Public Affairs (Veci Verejne or VV) whose public face is a popular journalist/writer, but whose nature is still murky. The party has some right-wing populist traits – it forced its candidates to sign an unconstitutional contract to pay a 7 million crown fine if they don’t vote as the leadership wishes – but it has also insisted on cutting the army’s budget and reallocating the money to education. No one is sure what to expect from VV or what its main backer wants. The desire for new parties extended even beyond these two successes with two other new formations receiving above 3% of the vote but not enough to enter parliament. Altogether there are 114 new faces in parliament compared to only 86 returnees.

3. A majority government. For the first time since 1992, elections have appeared to yield a clear majority government. Together ODS, TOP 09, and VV would control 118 of 200 seats in parliament giving their coalition a comfortable majority. Prior elections have yielded an exactly 50-50 split between left and right (2006), a 50.5% majority spanning left and right (2002), a minority left-wing government supported by the major right-wing party (1998), and a minority right-wing coalition (1996). The main reason for these inconclusive results was the presence of an unreformed communist party which has been viewed as uncoalitionable by the other democratic parties. Though the communists haven’t disappeared, for the first time in a long time, there appears to be a government with a clear mandate.

4. Support for austerity. And what is that mandate? What the three right-wing parties agree on is the need to cut spending and prevent further indebtedness. Surprisingly in the current climate, all three have proposed painful cuts including pension reforms, health care reforms (and retention of unpopular copays), introduction of tuition for university, a reduction in the number of state employees, and a reduction in social benefits and tax exemptions. Their plans thus contrasted dramatically with the Social Democrats’ (and Communists’) promises to increase benefits (for example, by introducing a thirteenth month pension and ending copays). The warning example of Greece, not to mention Hungary and the Baltics, likely played a role in the success of these programs as did Czechs’ traditional fiscal conservatism.

It seems likely then that the new government will introduce a number of potentially unpopular austerity programs intended to forestall a Greek-style collapse and hopefully restore growth. The wild cards are whether the public will accept these cuts which are individually unpopular even after giving parties a mandate to pursue them and whether the government will persist with them even at the cost of its popularity.