Sex, lies and votes: Welcome to the 2013 Czech elections!

October 25, 2013
God save the prince: Election materials from the 2013 Czech presidential campaign of TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg. (Kevin Deegan-Krause/The Monkey Cage)
God save the prince: Election materials from the 2013 Czech presidential campaign of TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg. (Kevin Deegan-Krause/The Monkey Cage)

[Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, we are pleased to welcome the following preelection report on the Oct. 25-26 Czech parliamentary elections from Wayne State University political scientist Kevin Deegan-Krause, who blogs about East European politics at the excellent Pozorblog.]

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After the fall of its government earlier this year, the Czech Republic will hold parliamentary elections on Oct. 25-26.  Here is what to look for:

In one sentence:

The Czech Republic’s second successive messier-than-usual election should put the Social Democratic party in a position to form a coalition, but it faces an abnormally bad set of choices: a left-wing pariah (the Communists), a combo of small parties on the right, or one or two celebrity driven new parties with idiosyncratic profiles.

In one paragraph:

The most likely outcome of the Czech election is a coalition headed by the Czech Social Democratic Party which currently has a strong lead in the polls.  The Social Democrats will almost assuredly get the most votes and seats, but the party will go into coalition negotiation with no obvious partner and an environment shaped by the relative successes and failures of its less predictable competitors.  On one side, the parliamentary term has seen stable support for the country’s “unreconstructed” Communist party which attracts a particular portion of the elderly, the nostalgic and the dissatisfied. On the other hand, the decline of the Czech Civic Democrats to almost unelectable levels and the collapse of the short-lived Public Affairs (a party that won 11 percent in 2010 but does not even appear on the 2013 ballot) has disrupted traditional patterns.  The specific rejection of the Civic Democrats and the public’s increasingly dominant belief in the corruption of all political leaders has left an enormous hole in the Czech party landscape which has been filled by new parties led by prominent individuals whose performance may be strong enough to allow them to force their way into a coalition if the Social Democrats cannot overcome the distaste of segments of society (and of many Social Democrats) for a coalition with the Communists.

In detail:

Political competition in the Czech Republic is extremely party-centered, and it is difficult to understand the overall directions and possibilities without a closer look at the specific players.  (For a broader focus, see the excellent blog post by University College London’s Sean Hanley)  For a long time the best way to group these in the Czech Republic was left vs. right but while that distinction still exists and still remains powerful, the most important distinction in this election may again be between old and new.  The once-stable Czech political party system looks set to be disrupted yet again in a pattern not unfamiliar to those who have paid attention to politics in Bulgaria, the Baltics, Slovakia, Poland, and most recently in Slovenia.  Nor is this pattern unique to post-communist Europe, since similar disruptions have recently hit Austria, Italy, Greece, Japan, Netherlands and Israel as well as many countries in Asia and Latin America.

Reasons for the emergence of new parties and new patterns of competition are complicated because — as might be expected — they have to do with both the political context of the country and the organizational context of the disruptive parties (and the ones they are replacing).  It is not hard to see the Czech Republic as a country that is ripe for voter rebellion against old parties in favor of new ones: it has seen anemic growth (its 2008-2009 recession was one of the mildest of the post-communist states but its recovery has also been among the weakest and the country’s growth rates are currently slightly negative and not likely to turn around quickly); it has also seen some spectacular high-level corruption, beginning after the 2010 election when evidence revealed that a new-anti corruption party was at least in part intended to help its main sponsor pursue business interests and culminating in 2013 in a scandal involving sex, lies, and votes traded for political office which engulfed Prime Minister Petr Necas and brought down his right-of-center coalition government. The qualities of the new party challengers also play a role and in this election, as in 2010, parties have emerged that combine the key elements of celebrity and money.

The old guard (how the mighty have fallen).

For more than a decade the Czech Republic had one of the most stable party systems in post-communist Europe, with the same four parties consistently winning over 80 percent of the seats, but in 2010 new parties broke into the system and the older parties saw their weakest combined result since 1992 (see here for more detail).  The pattern has continued into 2013, and the combined polling total of those four same parties is now barely above 50 percent.  The decline is not symmetrical, however.  Some of the old guard have bigger reservoirs of voters; some have been hit more than others:

Figure: Kevin Deegan-Karuse/The Monkey Cage
Figure: Kevin Deegan-Krause/The Monkey Cage

 

  • High but falling: The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which is well out in front, has declined in popularity despite being in opposition against a weak coalition with severe corruption problems.  It will ‘win’ the election and get a chance to form a government but it is not clear how much of parliament’s delegation it will obtain, whom it will be able to choose as a potential partner or how a coalition might be arranged (whether as a formal coalition with it or a looser supporting arrangement).
  • Once high, now medium and falling toward low: The Civic Democratic Party’s (ODS) collapse — a loss of over 70 percent its supporters in two years—is the biggest single story of this election.  The party once lead by Vaclav Klaus (ex-Prime Minister and now ex- Czech president) endured the biggest scandal of recent memory, but the decline in support continued even after the obvious offenders were replaced by relatively fresh, clean faces.
  • Medium and stable: the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has benefited slightly from the chaos but not overwhelmingly.  Many predictions suggested that the party’s elderly membership base would pass away and take the party with it, but the party remains around 15 percent, able to recruit new supporters (not so much from the young who don’t remember Communism as from those who are growing older) but not to break out of a relatively narrow band around 13-15 percent (thanks at least in part to its relative doctrinaire Marxism).
  • Low and rising.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL).  This was never one of the larger parties but it always managed to exceed the parliamentary threshold by a comfortable margin and sometimes managed to play a kingmaker role as a junior coalition partner in governments of both left and right.  In 2010 a combination of leadership problems and a split in the party pushed it below 5 percent and out of parliament after 20 years in of representation, but it did not fall far and has edged back up above the threshold in most polls.

 

The young (and not-quite-so-young) punks

  • Brand new and rising toward medium.  ANO2011 (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) uses an acronym which spells the word ‘yes’ in Czech, and this party may prove to be the real winner of the election. Formed by billionaire businessman Andrej Babis, the party has benefited from his money, his business background (he is someone who is seen to be able to get things done) and the general disgust with all things political.  His recent acquisition of leading newspapers in the country may not have undermined the Czech Republic’s free media but it has certainly kept his party in the news.
  • Young, medium and stable.  TOP09, another party with a “Sell-by Date” in its name, was the big winner of the 2010 election.  The other party to score well in the 2010 election, Public Affairs (VV) collapsed in scandal and disappeared, but TOP09 has retained relatively stable support averaging around 10 percent.  Nevertheless it would appear that some of the bloom is off the rose and TOP09 has fallen slightly even though it should theoretically have benefited most from the fall of ODS (the two parties’ voters and positions are relatively similar). One of the party’s strongest assets, the avuncular former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg who ran unsuccessfully for president earlier this year (see campaign poster at top of this post), has lost some popularity and there is active distrust of the real power in the party, former finance minister Miroslav Kalousek. TOP09 looks set to find its way into parliament but its long term presence on the Czech electoral scene is less sure than it looked two years ago.
  • Brand new and rising, but high enough?.  Dawn (Usvit) is another flash (and flashy) party led by a celebrity leader. Usvit’s founder formerly independent Sen. Tomio Okamura (of Czech-Japanese origin) has campaigned under slogans of direct Democracy and an end to corruption and the mess (under the colloquial term “bordello”) of Czech politics.  As Sean Hanley notes, he has also taken a harder line than many on issues concerning the Czech Republic’s Roma population.
  • Young, low and declining. Party for the Rights of Citizens — Zemanites (SPOZ) is struggling despite Milos Zeman’s win in the 2013 presidential election.  The party that bears the president’s name (though his continued association with it is murky) has not performed well in polls, and a combination of internal disarray and suspicions about the party’s main donors may keep voters away.
  • Other parties consistently gain points on public opinion polls but with levels too low to make them real contenders: the Czech Greens who made it into parliament in 2006 but dropped out again in 2010; the Czech Pirates who are performing around the 2-percent level that the party seems to draw in many countries (most recently Luxembourg), the radical-anti-Roma Worker’s Party has remained stable at just over a percentage point.

 

The 5 percent threshold (who makes the cut)

The exact composition of the new parliament and the coalition math depends heavily on the performance of the parties in the low category.

The Czech Republic has a 5 percent parliamentary threshold — a party needs to get 5 percent of the overall nationwide vote, or it does not get represented no matter how well it does in some regions.  If current polls are close to correct, four of the parties above (categorized as “low”) are close to the threshold:

  • The Civic Democrats (ODS). With a 1.5 percent cushion, fairly strong organization, it should manage to return to parliament but in dramatically weakened form.  The bigger question may be whether the party can survive the shock and rebuild over the long run.  It has faced crisis points in the past and recovered.
  • The Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL).  The party has always been one of the better organized in the country with a relatively large membership base and a clear (if relatively small) demographic base among the religiously inclined.  It has also remained active during its period of parliamentary exile in hopes of a quick return.  It is relatively rare for parties in the region to fall out of parliament and come back in, but KDU has the right organizational and demographic profile for such a reversal.
  • Dawn (Usvit). This party’s fate is hard to call.  As with ANO 2011, it faces the rather unstable new party dynamic.  During the late 1990s and most of the 2000s, “exciting” new parties often performed worse in the actual election than in polls but in the early 2010s this pattern changed and in many countries (Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic) many new parties actually outperformed their final campaign polls. Whether Usvit crosses the threshold or not may prove decisive in determining what kind of coalition will form as it will .
  • Party for the Rights of Citizens — Zemanites (SPOZ).  Despite Zeman’s win in the 2013 presidential election, the party that bears his name has not performed well in polls, but if it does manage to slide over the threshold, it will further complicate CSSD’s calculations, giving it another ideologically-aligned potential partner but posing complications related to its dodgy financing and relationship to a president who has already been seen as overreaching the bounds of his office.

The threshold matters not only because it determines the players in coalition negotiations but because it has a significant effect on the sizes of their shares.  Because parliamentary shares are calculated from only  parties that pass 5 percent, the size of the parties below the threshold matters a great deal in magnifying the representation of parties that succeed.  If 20 percent of the voters opt for parties that do not ultimately make it, then a 30 percent vote for the Social Democrats can yield nearly 40 percent of the seats.  Success by three or more of the marginal parties would lower that total and squeeze the number of Social Democratic seats back closer to 30 percent and make it difficult for them to form a government.  The current numbers hold at least the possibility of an ungainly five-party anti-left coalition, none of which gained more than 15 percent of the vote.  (Such coalitions governed in Slovakia between 2006-2010 and 2010-2012 and more recently in Slovenia, with varying levels of success and longevity, but a coalition with this kind diversity has never been formed in the Czech Republic).

The third rail (whether to include the Communists)

Assuming that the vote share for CSSD and parties below the 5-percent mark stays around the level of current polling, the Social Democrats will face what seems (from the outside at least) to be a remarkably difficult decision: whether to choose an ideologically consistent but (for some) politically incendiary coalition (either formal or informal) with the Czech Communist Party, a decision that would spark significant expressions of dissatisfaction among some sections of society (and parts of the CSSD itself) or to pursue a coalition with more market-oriented parties that might limit its ability to pursue its programmatic agenda and prove unpopular with both its own voters and voters generally who tend to view left-right co-operation as collusive and a corrupt stitch-up.  And if CSSD makes the latter decision, it will need to decide among relatively more established and stable — but also more ideologically resolute — long-standing parties or one or more of the new parties that depends on the whim of its leader.  Whatever it chooses, CSSD’s inability to get closer to the 50-percent mark means that it will pay a high price to return to government.  More broadly the willingness of Czech voters to follow the lead of their neighbors in other countries and support brand new celebrity parties may also exact a high price in terms of governability and political stability, but this willingness seems to be on the rise in democracies everywhere and the price is one that many voters seem willing to pay.

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