16/06/2002 - D-7
Twenty-nine political parties will be candidates in the coming general election in Czechia, a record in the country's short history. In the 1994 elections voters had to choose between thirteen parties, and sixteen during the last election in 1998. We should remember that Czechia had a total of 200 political movements at the beginning of the 1990's just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The burgeoning number of parties entering the elections can be explained by the change in the electoral law voted by Parliament at the beginning of 2002. Whereas previously each party had to pay 200,000 crowns by region where it was presenting a candidate and gain a minimum score of 3% of the vote to qualify for a State subsidy, the deposit has now been reduced to 15,000 crowns and each party that wins 1,7% of the vote will receive 100 crowns per vote.
Amongst the 29 parties on offer to the voters only five have any real chance of winning the 5% share necessary to take a seat in the lower house of Parliament. These are the two main majority parties, the Social Democrat Party (CSSD) placed centre-left and the Civic Democrat Party (ODS) a centre-right movement, as well as three other movements two of which are represented in the lower house: the Bohemian and Moravian Communist Party (KSCM) and the two Coalition parties, the Czech Christian Democrat Union, - The Czech Peoples' Party (KDU-CSL), a centre-left movement; The Freedom Union- Democratic Union (US-DEU), placed centre-right.
The eighty other parties comprise small movements that have established themselves over the last few years like the Green Party (SZ), created in 1990 and that won 1,12% of the vote in the last general elections in 1998; Miroslav Sladek's Republicans (RMS), an extreme right movement created in 2000 after the break up of the Czech Republic Republican's Party (SRP-RSC) of which Miroslav Sladek was already the leader and that obtained 3,9% of the vote in 1998, and also the Security Party (SZJ) created in 1989 and that defends pensioners' interests (3,06% of the vote in 1998). Two movements are extremely new: Hope (Nadeje), created in January 2002 and led by Monika Pajerova, a student leader during the Velvet Revolution in 1989, that brings together intellectuals and citizens who condemn partisan logic and declare themselves in favour of a "third way" towards government. Another party created in October 2001, The Way to Change (CZ) led by Jiri Lobkowicz, is a liberal centre-right movement, actively campaigning for Czechia's entry into the European Union.
Latest opinion polls
Although the two main pollsters say that the ODS will win the vote, nothing has yet been decided. The abstention rate is due to reach 25-30%. As far as the voters' choice is concerned the last survey by STEM on 22nd May grants 63 seats for 27.1% of the intended vote to the Civic Democratic Party (a drop of 3,1% in comparison with the polls in mid-May) and 61 seats for 26.4% will go to its main rival, the CSSD (dropping by 6.9%). The Coalition (KDU-CSL and US-DEU) that follows in the wake of these two main movements should win 41 seats and 18% (+ 3,1%) and the Communist Party, 35 seats and 15.1% (+ 1,4%). Finally the Way to Change (CZ) and the Security Party (SZJ) will each win 1,7% of the vote and would then be below the minimum 5% required to be represented in Parliament. Jiri Lobkowicz's party mainly attracted first time voters and the abstentionists during the last national elections. The other main pollster TNS Factum (Taylor Nelson Sofres Factum) granted 28.7% of the intended vote to the ODS and 26.9% to the CSSD, the Communist Party and the Coalition would win 15.9% of the vote each according to a poll on 29th May.
One week from the elections pollsters are puzzled since the electorate seems to be extremely volatile. The CSSD were up by 6.5% of the intended vote during the second week in May, moving ahead of the ODS for the first time during the campaign but took a 6.9% drop a week later. To date one third of the voters say they still haven't taken a decision; these are the undecided who usually tend to vote for the Social Democrat Party in the end. According to Alena Nedoma, Executive Director of the Gallup Institute's Prague office, political researchers' work is made difficult given the youth of Czech democracy, a situation that is common in all of the ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe. "The parties and the programmes are unstable and the voters have different electoral habits from older more established democracies, shifting easily and more rapidly from one party to another" he says. This is why Gallup has chosen not to publish is polls on the Czech elections. Last April the company forecast Viktor Orban's FIDESZ victory in the Hungarian elections just like all the other pollsters, but the election was finally won by the Socialist Party (MSZP).
The electoral campaign
On 28th May the Civic Democratic Party suffered a heavy blow Jan Kasl, Prague's ODS mayor and a major political figure in Czechia announced his resignation from the mayorship and his departure from the party led by Vaclav Klaus. The latter reacted very violently to what he called "a second Sarajevo" referring to the collective resignation of several of his party members in 1997, a resignation that led to the fall of his government. The ODS leader qualified Jan Kasl's decision as a "dishonouring betrayal". The capital's ex-mayor explained his act by the difficulties encountered by his council as well as his profound disagreement with Vaclav Klaus' remarks on immigration, that he found similar to those held by Jean Marie Le Pen in France. Indeed Vaclav Klaus leads a nationalist campaign, emphasising that immigration "should not be a taboo subject" referring to the "growing problems" created by asylum seekers. The theme of security is also a subject privileged by the Civic Democrat Party who wish to see more policemen on the streets, to have longer prison sentences and finally to reduce the President's power to pardon criminals.
For its part the Social Democrat Party's campaign is very much oriented to the left. The party's platform is working on several social themes such as the creation of 200,000 jobs over the next 4 years; free care for people over 70 years of age, the handicapped and the chronically sick; the building of 45,000 flats per year for a period of five years; the maintenance of pension levels; higher taxes for those with high incomes; loan facilities for the under 36 year olds who want to become property owners and even the abolition of military service by 2006. However the CSSD now has to answer for its methods of government over the past four years. Party leaders admit they failed to fight corruption, a problem that is poisoning the country, Czechia being one of the most corrupt states in Europe. The Social Democrats also failed to finalise their privatisation plan except in the banking sector, and managed to deepen considerably the public debt which was to reach a record level this year rising to 50 billion crowns.
Since 1989 the Communist party, who many thought would disappear rapidly after the Velvet Revolution, improves its score at every election. The KSCM might even retain its position as a third political force in the lower house of Parliament according to the polls. The Party is campaigning for a 35 hour week and the creation of 300,000 jobs, the construction of 30,000 flats per year, Czechia's withdrawal from NATO, and the maintenance of a referendum on the country's entry into the European Union. Although there is no chance that the Social Democrat Party would invite the Communist party to form a coalition if they won, the KSCM has however gradually lost its pariah status amongst the political classes in Czechia. Recently Communist MP's were even invited to take part in a parliamentary working group on the proposed resolution of the Benes decrees, an event that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
To conclude neither of the two main parties seem able to govern alone, and so the Coalition might be the key to the Czech general elections. The present Coalition succeeded the previous Coalition of Four (4K), which was a combination of the Christian Union - Czech Peoples' Democrat Party (KDU/CSL), the ODA (Civic Democrat Alliance), the US (Liberty Union) and the DEU (Democratic Union), formed in September 2000 and dissolved in February 2002 after having been the primary political movement in the Senate and being the leaders in the electoral polls with 31% of the intended vote. The Coalition was recreated without the ODA. It is campaigning for the election of the Republic's President (which will occur at the start of 2003) by direct universal vote as well as for Czechia's entry into the European Union. Although the Social Democrats have said they are open to all proposed coalitions except for an alliance with the Communist Party, Vladimir Spilda, the present Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the CSSD, recently confirmed that he preferred a coalition with the centre-left KDU-CSL. A new CSSD coalition with the ODS should not be excluded however even though many of the militants from both parties say they are against this and although Vladimir Spilda has just said that he would never be a member of a government led by Vaclav Klaus. Vladimir Mlynar (US-DEU) maintained that his party was in favour of an alliance with the CSSD but he was immediately contradicted by Hana Marvanova, the party's leader, who said she was in favour of a centre-right government. And as for Karel Kühnl from the Liberty Union, he declared himself to be open to all suggestions saying that the CSSD and the ODS were both possible coalition partners.
As we can see one week before the election all government coalition scenario are possible. Whilst one third of the voters still haven't taken their decision, the Civic Democrat Party who are just in the lead ahead of the Social Democrats are not guaranteed victory. The Coalition scores and why not those of the Communist Party might also have some surprises in store. We must wait for the 15th and 16th June to see who the Czechs will be governed by for the next four years.