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High abstention rate and communist break through in Czech general elections won by the social democrats

High abstention rate and communist break through in Czech general elections won by the social democrats

16/06/2002 - Results

"Vote ODS or CSSD they'll come to some agreement behind your back anyway" proclaimed the anonymous posters that went up across the country. The slogan seemed to be have been understood by the Czechs, who, at a rate of 42%, ie 16% more than in 1998 (and 18.6% more than in 1996) turned their backs on the ballot boxes on 14 & 15 June, refusing to follow President Vaclav Havel's advice just two days before the election to vote "in order to show the variety of their opinions and to create an opening in the political system".

The significant abstention rate is the major event in these general elections. The numerous corruption scandals - and especially "the stability agreement" signed in July 1998, by the two main players on the Czech political scene, the CSSD and the ODS that allowed the minority social democrats to govern in exchange for the attribution of key posts in the country's institutions to the ODS - contributed largely to the confusion of partisan division and appears to have been the main cause of voter disinterest in the general election.

For four years all opinion polls showed Czech discontent vis à vis their political groups, around one year ago a dissatisfied Vaclav Havel warned political leaders by saying: "the parties must help the country and not help themselves". Czech's abroad do not appear to have shown any greater interest in the election results: only 3,000 of them (out of 80,000 officially registered) registered to vote.

The second striking point of this general election was the Communist Party's break through. This was the only political group to progress in terms of votes (+ 220 000). With 18.51% of the votes cast it progressed from 24 seats to 41. This was a result their leader Miroslav Grebenicek had not dared to dream of since the day previous to the election he said "that 15% would be a good score". The KSCM, the last unreformed communist party in Central Europe, campaigned on safeguarding entitlements granted during the initial communist era and on its opposition to the country's entry into the European Union. Eighteen months after achieving positive results in the regional and senatorial by-elections it has become the third most important group in the Lower Chamber. The Communists who benefited from the high abstention rate won a maximum number of votes in the regions with economic difficulties, such as Northern Bohemia and Moravia.

With the KSCM's positive result and the high abstention rate the CSSD's victory with Vladimir Spilda at its head, although it is a clear one certainly does not herald an easy future. Since they did not win enough seats to govern alone the Social Democrat Party will have to form a coalition that is able to govern the country. On Saturday evening Vladimir Spilda clearly rejected the idea of an alliance with the Communists but admitted that it would be necessary to have "parliamentary negotiations" with them. The Vice-President of the Party and Home Secretary, Stanislav Gross also emphasised that the Social Democrats "could not ignore the 800,000 votes" won by the Communist party. He added that in accordance with the principles of parity they should be granted some parliamentary positions. Vladimir Spilda also excluded re-signing the stability pact with the ODS "a tool that could only be used once", confirming his preference for a "sensible government coalition" with the Coalition Centrists. However the CSSD and the Centrist Coalition both have a weak majority - one seat only - in the lower Chamber of Parliament, which has been further weakened by the presence of two independent MP's within the Union for Liberty (US), the evangelical pastor Svatopluk Karasek and the actress Tatiana Fischerova, both dissidents from the Communist party. There is no guarantee that they will form a coalition with the Social Democrats. Moreover although the KDU-CSL said a long time ago that it was in favour of forming an alliance with the CSSD, some US-DEU members from the ODS are much more critical of the Social Democrat programme. The Coalition is therefore threatened with dissension. As a result negotiations might be long and difficult for the Social Democrat Party that will have to face opposition from the ODS on the right and the Communists on the left. At the end of its "steering consultations" with the leaders of the CSSD, the ODS and the Coalition President Vaclav Havel has not excluded the creation of a minority cabinet.

Clearly lagging behind the CSSD (by more than 5% of the vote), the ODS will join the Communist on the opposition bench comprising a large Eurosceptic group (99 MP's). Vaclav Havel who is very disappointed by his party's result, admitted his defeat before saying "the only victor in these elections" were the Communists and the vote demonstrated "the defeat of all the political parties". The leader of the main opposition party will almost certainly compete for the position of his greatest rival Vaclav if he does not managed to be appointed Prime Minister. The Social Democrat's support for his candidature - "Mr Klaus' possible election at the head of the country is not intolerable for the CSSD" declared Vladimir Spilda at the end of the election campaign - might be part of the post election negotiations between the different groups. The president of Czechia is elected by both Chambers of Parliament (Senate and Chamber of Deputies).

Amongst the 24 other groups who took part in the elections only two, the Union of Independents and the Green Party (SZ) managed to win more than 1.5% of the vote and will therefore be reimbursed for expenses incurred during the campaign.

"We aim to have a socially modern State and entry to the European Union", stressed Vladimir Spilda at the end of the elections. Since the CSSD did not manage to push this through during the last term of office the Social Democrat leader raised the idea of a referendum on the subject. Czechia is today one of the most advanced countries in terms of membership. To date 25 of the 30 negotiation chapters have been closed. There is still debate about institutional matters - Prague does not accept the weakness of its representation in the European Parliament - and there is still a problem with the transport chapter where there is a navigation problem with the German border. Finally there is the agricultural question, the stumbling block in negotiations between the Union and all of the other candidate countries, the budgetary and financial questions, very much linked to the agricultural one and that of competition. Nevertheless negotiations that are still on-going should not impede Czechia's entry into the Union, planned for 2004; and most of the population are indeed in favour of joining.

Results of the General Elections 14 & 15 June 2002: Participation: 58%

Source CSU (Czech Statistics Office)
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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