>Czech Senate run-off elections: Orange wave rolls over the provinces

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Well, you should never believe that lousy pundit Dr Sean. The results for the 26 second round run-off elections to the Czech Senate (1 third of the 81 member Senate come up for re-election every two years*) are now in and it’s more good news for the Social Democrats and more bad news for the centre-right.
The results of the run-offs were as follows

Social Democrats 22 (I predicted 19)
Civic Democrats 3 (prediction 6)
Communists 1 (prediction 1)
Christian Democrats 0 (prediction 1)

The big story is the Social Democrats polled better than expected in the provinces, overturning first round Civic Democrat leads in three electoral districts. Especially notable is that they did so well in larger provincial towns and cities, winning not only in Zlín (where they had sitting a Senator) but also in Oloumouc, Brno and Plzeň which had always been fairly safe territory for the right and had elected right-wing Senators in 2002. They even managed to squeak in ahead of the Christian Democrats in their historic South Moravian heartland winning in Uherské Hradiště by half a percent. Only in Prague did the right-wing vote hold up: all three seats in the capital were won by ODS by large margins, but these were the only seats they won. The future, at least in the provinces, is orange, the Czech Social Democrat have left red to the Communists, whose one 2nd round candidate, as anticipated, won in Znojmo by a country mile). And, just to complete the picture, I should that that old warhorse Jiří Dienstbier did win for the Social Democrats without too much difficulty in Kladno and thus returns to national political office some 16 years after being dumped out of parliament by Czech voters in 1992. However, his 56% of the poll in a bastion of the left was one of the Social Democrats less impressive results, so perhaps there were a few Old Bolsheviks out there who still have forgiven him for Charter 77.

So, should we get excited about the result? Predictably, Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek says that these results show that the current government is toast and that a caretaker administration of technocrats should take over to lead into early elections next June and allow the Czech Presidency of the EU to pass with dignity without being undermined by domestic instabilty. I personally doubt that such a dramatic scenario is on the cards. I dare say the current centre-right government will put out some feelers for a bit of bipartisanship on the Presidency – in truth, despite some differences of language, the two big parties’ priorities for the Presidency aren’t a million miles apart and the Czech Republic’s lack of real political clout in Europe means that the range of realistic goals any government could set is quite narrow.

In some ways perhaps not. The French style two round majoritarian election system used to elect the Czech Senate and the six year interval between elections tends sometimes to produce such dramatic massacre of incumbent parties. The Civic Democrats had similarly crushing victories over the incumbent centre and centre-left in Senate elections in 2004, for example. Their current loses thus just undo their dominant position in the Senate, which has limited powers in any cases, returning the second chamber to the balanced state the staggered re-election of a third of Senators every two years is supposed to achieve.

On the other hand, the results keep up the pressure on the government and on Civic Democrat leader and Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek and mark a significant advance for the Social Democrats, who have always previously failed to translate their position as one of the two big national parties in Czech politics into effective performance in the highly localized Senate contests. In a slightly more long term perspective the votes confirm some ongoing trends in Czech politics: the eclipse of small centre-right liberal parties (possibly we should include the Greens in this category too) and the creeping advance of the Social Democrats as an electoral force in South Moravia at the expense of the Christian Democrats, whose identity crisis these results will do nothing to assuage.

The only unpredictable factor, of course, is the global economic downturn. If Hungary does go the way of Iceland and the rest of the region catches cold, we may see some more dramatic shifts on the Czech political scene. My bet, however, is that if the economic chips are all down we would be more likely to see some kind of a government of national unity, than early elections. After all, what self-respecting party of the traditional left promised to defend ‘social certainties’ that Czech voters so prize would want to take over in such circumstances?

*One Social Democrat was elected with an absolute majority in the first round last week)

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