16/06/2002 - Analysis
This has been quite a year for the Czech people in terms of elections since they will have been called to the ballot boxes three times in under a year. On 14th and 15th June they will be electing their MP's, a third of their senators will be renewed on 25th and 26th October and there will be a vote for the local and municipal elections on 1st and 2nd November. Finally at the beginning of 2003 Parliament will elect Vaclav Havel's successor to the Presidency of the Republic since, in conformity with the Constitution, he cannot aspire to a new mandate. This election has been the subject of fierce debate between political parties for some two years; some are campaigning for a total change of the Republic's nature and would like to see the head of State elected by universal suffrage from now on. This will be part of our reflection hereunder.
According to the Constitution the general elections should be held on 20th May and 20th June 2002. Vaclav Havel, who sets the electoral calendar with the Prime Minister, wanted them to occur in May; in the end he came to an agreement with the main political parties who had requested another later date. Vaclav Havel ratified the electoral law in January 2002 after its adoption by the two houses of Parliament. This law plans for the division of Czechia into 14 electoral districts, the organisation of the elections over two days and the application of proportional representation.
For four years the Czechs have been governed by an atypical coalition of the CSSD (Social Democrat Party), the majority in the Houses of Parliament and the ODS (Civic Democrat Party), the second largest party in parliament. The CSSD, who won the last general elections on 19th and 20th June 1998, were unable to form a majority government alone. Following talks behind closed doors between the leaders of the two movements the CSSD formed an alliance with the ODS in a "stability agreement", which was designed to be supportive but without participation. This pact, that was signed on 3rd July 1998, was extended in July 1999 and clarified in January 2000. According to this agreement which is called the "agreement for the creation of a politically stable environment in Czechia", the ODS commits itself to not tabling a motion of censure against the social democrat government led by Milos Zeman during the period of his mandate. In exchange the Civic Democrat Party is consulted before the vote of any major project and was awarded strategic posts in different organisations for its members, and the Presidency of the Chamber of Deputies was handed back to Vaclav Klaus. This pact between the two main parties, signed after a fierce electoral campaign, took voters of the two movements by surprise and especially those of the CSSD. From that moment on the Social Democrat Party has witnessed a constant decline in electoral influence in all the elections that have been held over the last four years. This was proved quite true during the last two national votes in November 2000. On 12th and 19th November the Czechs were called to renew a third of the Upper House. The participation rate was extremely low (33,7% in the first round and 21,5% in the second) and the CSSD -just like the ODS- lost control of the Senate in favour of the Coalition of the Four (right) created by the Christian Democrat Union/The Czech People's Party (KDU/CSL), the ODA (Civic Democratic) and the (Union of Freedom). During the regional elections on 12th November, the first of their kind in Czechia, only a third of the voters turned out and elected the Civic Democrat Party with 24% of the vote against 15% for the Social Democrat Party. A notable fact: the Communist Party (KSCM) came out ahead of the Social Democrats with 21% of the vote.
A partisan system badly handled by the politicians and questioned by the population
The Lower House of the Czech Parliament comprises 200 MP's elected for a four year period by a pluri-nominal vote by region. Any movement has to achieve 5% of the vote cast in order to be represented. In this system the division of the remaining votes is undertaken according the highest remainder in the electoral region. The remaining mandates are then attributed during a second national vote where the political movements present a list of candidates during who were not elected during the first round and where the voter casts a preferential vote. The general election is only open to the parties who have recruited 2,000 members.
Five political movements are represented in the present Chamber of Deputies.
- The Social Democrat Party (CSSD) is situated centre-left. It governs at present and Vladimir Spilda is its president.
- The Civic Democrat Party (ODS) is a centre-right movement with Vaclav Klaus as its president.
- The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) is the successor of the Communist Party of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslavkia.
- The Christian Democrat Union/Czech People's Party (KDU/CSL) belong the parliamentary right.
- The Union for Freedom (US) is movement placed to the right on the political chess-board.
Czechia has six other political parties including the ODA (Civic Democrat Alliance) that is represented in the Senate and the Green Party (SZ).
In September 2000, with the 2002 General Elections in mind, the Christian Democrat Union/Czech People's Party (KDU/CSL) chose to form a coalition with three other rightwing movements: the ODA (Civic Democrat Alliance), the US (Union for Freedom) and the DEU (Democratic Union, not represented in Parliament) who finally merged with the US in October 2001. This centre-right coalition was named the Coalition of Four (4K) and elected Karel Künhl (US) as its leader in January 2001. The movements in the Coalition of Four joined together to form a true opposition force against the two main parties and to criticise the domination of the CSSD and the ODS, the non-aggression pact (stability agreement) that they signed giving them total power over the State. After its victory during the last partial senatorial elections in November 2000 this new coalition asserted itself as the leading political force in the Upper House of Parliament. On 1st February 2002, the Alliance was leading the opinion polls with 31% of the intention to vote just a few months before the general elections, but internal conflict between the ODA, that had serious financial problems, and the other members of the alliance finally led to its dissolution. Its leader Karel Künhl resigned from his post declaring that "the Coalition of Four had ceased to exist".
In December 2000, another event added to the disarray in the current partisan system. The appointment of Jiri Hodac, close to Vaclav Klaus and president of the ODS, at the head of the Czech state television (CT), caused uproar amongst the channel's journalists who protested fiercely against the seizure of the state television by the political parties. The intellectuals and artists who started this protest found support amongst the Czech population who came to demonstrate in number in front of the television studios and to watch the news programme produced by the striking journalists each evening. 200,000 people signed the petition in support of the strikers and many demonstrations were held in the country until Jiri Hodac resigned on 11th January 2001. This popular mobilisation was the largest in Czechia since the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. Apart from the actual choice of Jiri Hodac, the strikers and demonstrators were questioning the method employed, in particular the famous "stability agreement" signed between the two main political parties. The striking journalists also received the support of the Vaclav Havel the President: "the television crisis is a result of what I have been criticising for many years, the domination of the political parties. The parties are an important and necessary instrument in public life but not a goal per se. The parties must serve the country and not themselves", he declared.
From 1999 on civic initiatives were created denouncing the partisan political system. In the spring intellectuals drew up the Drevic Proclamation that was heavily critical of the government and the socio-ecomomic changes in the country. On 17th November, the day of the 10th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, intellectuals and student leaders launced a call (Impuls 99) for the creation of a new forum between the politicians and society from their base in the Slavia Café, the main meeting place for Czech dissidents during the Communist regime. The text that was called "Thank you, now leave!" announced the creation of a new political movement, the Democratic Citizens' Initiative that Condemns Partisan Logic. It assembled 200, 000 signatures in one month. On 3rd December, 70,000 demonstrators met in Venceslas Square demanding the government's resignation and calling for new general elections. Milos Zeman, the Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democrat Party at the time, and Vaclav Klaus leader of the conservative party the ODS, were held responsible by the demonstrators for hindering the political system, for monopolising democracy for their own ends and in contempt of the people. A year later state television journalists succeeded in winning popular support and contributed to the federation of the various initiatives launched by civil society. In addition to this polls showed that between 1998 and 2001 the public's support for the stability agreement had dropped from 60% to less than 30%..
At the end of the conflict journalists and artists, some of whom have declared political ambitions, created the Civic League. In addition to this and with the "Thank you, now leave" text as their inspiration, the intellectuals created a club which aims to be the voice of the country's elite. However, since it is placed centre-right, this movement, whose motto is "Act with disinterest for the good of society" seems today to have failed in asserting itself as a political force capable of bearing influence during the coming general elections.
Nationalism at the heart of the electoral campaign
In an interview published in January 2002 by the Austrian magazine Profil Prime Minister Milos Zeman justified the expulsion of the Sudet Germans in 1945 recalling that they had been "Hitler's Fifth Column". For his part the opposition leader Vaclav Klaus requested the Benes Decrees be recorded in the treaty of the European Union to ensure their continuity and "to exclude once and for all retroactive claims" by member countries of the Union regarding Czechia. The head of the Hungarian government at the time, Viktor Orban reacted declaring to Brussels that the Benes Decrees "were incompatible with European law" and demanded that Slovakia and Czechia abolish them before joining the European Union. As a sign of protest, Milos Zeman and the leader of the Slovak government Mikulas Dzurinda refused to take part in the Visegrad Group Summit (a group bringing together Hungary, Poland, Czechia and Slovakia) planned for 1st March in Hungary.
Jörg Haider's populist party was the first to re-examine the Benes Decrees demanding their repeal as a condition sine qua non for Czechia's accession to the European Union. The Benes Decrees, named after the former president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes, elected in 1935 and who led the Czech government into exile between 1938 to 1945, resigning in 1948 after the Communist take-over, are in fact four documents dating from 1945 and involve the Sudet Germans and Hungarians. They stipulate "the national administration of German, Hungarian and traitors' property" (19th May), "the punishment of Nazi criminals and collaborators" (19th June), "the forfeiture of Czech citizenship by Germans and Hungarians" (2nd August), and "the confiscation of enemy property" (25th October). In real terms these decrees meant that around three million Germans and 100,000 thousand Hungarians living in Sudetenland were expulsed and dispossessed of all of their property at the end of the Second World War. For years both German and Austrian associations representing those who had been expulsed or their descendants have been demanding compensation from Czechoslovakia and then Czechia. Although the Benes Decrees no longer have any legal influence today they are still part of Czech law.
By adopting a subject which is a source of conflict between Czechia and its close neighbours, the CSSD and the ODS have not thought twice about placing nationalism and the defence of the country's interests at the heart of their electoral campaign. After the Hungarian elections the reappearance of nationalism in Central Europe is a cause for concern for the European Union, which itself is not a stranger to this phenomenon. "Czech politicians are trying to woo the electorate 70% to 80% whom think that the Benes Decrees should be left as they are", points out the political analyst Jiri Pehe who also says "the problem is that the Czechs do not a strong enough national identity. Relations with our neighbours are difficult: we define ourselves too often in relation to Germany". In a reaction to this rise in nationalism intellectuals have recently addressed a petition to the Czech MP's entitled: "Stop nationalism!" signed by 500,000 people. The official campaign for the general elections has only just started and should bring to light other themes of domestic policy and public choice. Present polls do not reveal what the outcome of the vote will be, but foresee a narrow victory for the ODS over the CSSD. We shall have to wait until mid-June to know what the Czechs have chosen.
Results of General Elections on 19th & 20th June 1998:
Participation rate : 74%
Source Czech Embassy Paris
Composition of the Senate :
Source Czech Embassy Paris