>Czech Republic: What the elections mean


So, what does the Czech ‘earthquake election’ mean for Czech and Central European politics? As with the famous Ho-Chi Minh quote on the French Revolution, it is basically too early to tell – and probably will be for about another 10 or 20 years, but, I think, there four sets of issues/consequences to watch and think through.

1. A sudden and unprecedented (but not irreversible?) decline of (big) established parties

As all commentators have noticed, the election is an earthquake in Czech politics because of the simultaneous fall in the votes of the two big parties, that have been the pillars of the Czech party system for the last 15-20 years : the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats (ČSSD). It is the lowest national vote for ODS since the party’s foundation in 1991 and puts the Social Democrats on a level of national support they had in 1995-6, although – as noted – they did experience a more catastrophic electoral meltdown in the 2004 European elections and bounced effortlessly back in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Previously, however, when one big party declined the other picked up support – with the exception that is of the Opposition Agreement period (1998-2002) when the they co-operated politically as a part of a confidence and supply agreement to enable a minority Social Democrat government. In that period, however, existing parties (the Communists and a Christian-Democrat led centrist alliance) gained from voter discontent – or, at least, vote desire to vote against incumbents. As the lastest analysis at Pozorblog makes clear (see graph) the swing in support for new parties is unprecedented in Czech terms and pretty damn big in regional terms.

The 2010 result is still more striking because the fragmentation – and equalization – of the Czech party politics it has brought about – again Kevin Deegan-Krause has done the numbers over at Pozorblog – follows on an election result in 2006, which saw polarization and an large increas in support for both big parties. Indeed, in 2006 ODS polled a record vote. Such polarization seemed to be part of a CEE-wide trend at the time, but may now have been derailed.

Does this herald a cycle of ever more unstable party politics with new parties rising and falling with increased tempo and scale, as the stable-seeming party systems of CEE such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and (who knows) even dear old Slovenia defaulting to ‘normal’ postcommunist politics under the exogenous shocks of the economic crisis and/or because finally voters have got truly fed up with them and a perfect storm of mismanaged strategy and credible new parties has blown up and blown them away. Kevin Deegan Krause suggests this and it’s seductive and plausible argument.

On the other hand if organization and ‘standard’ predictable identity have tended over the long term to bring success, then in years to come they should tend do so again, especially once the lustre of anti-establishment newness wears off TOP09 and Public Affairs (as it very rapidly will when they enter government) and their lack of organizational (and in VV’s case) programmatic resources is laid bare. So there may be no automatic or quick spiral into cycle of parties rising and falling. ‘Old’ and ‘new’ parties – and here I am really thinking really of parties of the centre-right – ODS, TOP09, VV and Christian Democrats – are likely to be engaged in projects of realignment, likely to produce some Italian style alliance or bloc probably centred on ODS.

Moreover, however fickle the voters – and I think that with the exception of some parts of the ODS electorate and small loyal core electorates of Communists and Christian Democrats, they have always been pretty fickle bunch – there is a limited reservoir of politicians, journalists, businesspeople and aristocrats with the experience, credibility and financial backing to launch a credible new party projects. They are not that easy to do. As that “one of the reasons that new parties do not survive is that they never really get started”.

‘New’ parties tend to work when they are breakaways from old parties – or recycled versions of earlier elites – with an aura of newness. Leaving aide the iconic Schwarzenberg, TOP09 seems run by hardened ex-Christian Democrats with a long political track record. What is TOP09 without the Prince? Public Affairs seems to form something of a fascinating exception here, but even here if you look closely you see that it has recycled part of many of the CR’s small off-the-radar liberal parties. The issue therefore seems to be just as the organizational stability and elite cohesion of existing parties in preventing breakaway projects and the ability of extraparliamentary politicians to bring together, mobilize and unite diffuse elements, than the voters ever changing moods.

One critical point, may be the ability or inability of new parties to take control of the regions – currently all run by Social Democrats with the exception of Prague. The battle for political control of the Czech capital in municipal elections in November will be an intresting test of whether TOP and VV can consolidate- although both are strong in the capital it will be a relatively easy initial test.

2. A victory for the centre-right, but a difficult to manage coalition

Viewed in left-right terms for the first time since 1992 – well, in fact 1998 although in that year the Freedon Union’s leaders never for a moment allying with the ODS, having just broken away from it – this year’s election result break the deadlock between left and right. Coalition talks are have just started to form a ODS-TOP09-Public Affairs (VV) coalition, which, on paper, would enjoy a thumping majority (118 of 200 seats). However, the fly the in ointment is VV, whose origins, leaders and financial backing are uncertain and whose politics are as much anti-establishment and populist as right-wing,liberal and pro-market: the demand to cut the military budget and spend the money on schools seems characteristic. If VV is included ina coalition, the calculation at the back of ODS and TOP politicans is probably that even if VV’s parliamentary group splits – and the track record of loose, charistmatically led new parties which experience a meteoric rise would seem to make that a racing certainty – enough of its 24 strong group of deputies will gravitate to ODS or TOP09 to leave the government with a working majority.

Still, given that the emerging Nečas government will need to make some tough financial decisions – and will be programmatic committed to doing – there are likely acute problems of party and coalition management, especially as TOP09 is itself a hastily put together conglomeration of ex-Christian Democrats, the odd ex-ODS politician and independent local politicians: seasoned with the odd businessman and emininent physian the latter group, especially, may have little experience of – or taste for – party discipline in parliament.

3. Instabilty, infighting and realignment on the centre-right

The upshot of all – even if you subscribe to the somewhat conspiratorial view of Erik Best’s the Final Word – that TOP09 and VV are, in essence, fake parties intended to soak up protest voting and then fold (into ODS) and will not change the status quo where powerful vested interests dominate – is that there will be some major realignment on the right. This, as I suggest above, will be part organizational, but also part ideological: if there is some degree of consolidation a ‘Canadian scenario’ would seem most probably with the insurgent anti-corruption, market populist agenda of TOP09 and VV absorbed into the mainstream, most probably represented some kind of remade ODS.

4. The rise of left-wing populist challenge to the Communists and Social Democrats

The Social Democrats, despite the shock of defeat, are in many ways in somewhat less of a crisis than ODS. True the robust confrontation welfare populism and negative campaigning of Paroubek era may be dumped – although, in fact, negative campaigning of the right against the lack of realism of Paroubek’s Social Democrats may have done the job in persuading many of their voters not to turn out – and a turn back to some quieter more moderate version of Czech social democracy is likely. However, that’s a cycle we’ve seen before with the shift from the bombastic Zeman to the technocratic Špidla to the even more bombastic Paroubek (leaving out the ill-fated, brief premiership of Stanislav Gross in 2004-5). The Social Democrats will also benefit from not being in government – and hence free to oppose unpopular cuts, and regroup and rethink – and are more experienced in bouncing back from bruising electoral setbacks and political meltdowns.

The unexpectedly good performance of two, little fancied minor left-wing parties: Zeman’s SPOZ and the Sovereignty party should give them food for though. Zeman’s party was regarded as something of joke and/or vanity project, having little more than Zeman himself, a bog standard centre-left programme with few new idea (rehashing ideas the Social Democrats have regularly used) and surprisingly large amounts of cash for national billboard advertising. Some wonder whether it was not a Russian style spoiler party deliberatly backed by interests favouring the right. If so, it succeeded brilliantly.

The somewhat less successful Sovereignty is, however, probably the one to watch and seems to be in for the longer term (Zeman has quit his own party): it has a more innovative blend of centre-left economics, anti-establishment rhetoric and a dosh of euroscepticism and in Jan Bobošiková – striking in trademark bright yellow dress – a striking figure with the cache of newness. Interestingly, Sovereignty and SPOZ seem to have picked up votes in quite different regions (see below) suggesting that scope for some more ambitious project – a Public Affairs (VV) of the left, if you will.

It has also not escaped attention that despite its Prague stronghold (its origins lie in local politics in the Czech capital) VV seems to have picked up more than a few left-wing voters – doing surprisingly well in the industrial Moravia-Silesia region in the North-West of the country.

The Mother of All Questions for the Czech left, however, is what will happen the Communist Party (KSČM) and its famously loyal voters? TOP09 was able to fell Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)- another party with a loyal core electorate, but limited wider appeal. but only, arguably, because TOP was founded by ex-Christian Democrats and because part of the KDU electorate was a more floating and centrist one. Would parties of the populist left be able to do a similar job on KSČM? The Czech Communists are bigger with a bigger core electorate and its seems unlikely that there is a Czech Robert Fico concealed somewhere inside the party reading to launch a Czech Smer? The Czech Social Democrats and their voters would, however, seems to offer more than sufficient scope for a small-medium size new social-national party of the populist left.

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