29/04/2010 - Analysis
On 5th February Czech President Vaclav Klaus announced that the next general elections would take place on 28th and 29th May 2010. 5,053 candidates, one quarter of whom are women, representing 27 parties are standing (ie +1 in comparison with the previous general election on 2nd and 3rd June 2006), 15 only are present in country's 14 regions (22 in Prague).
The general elections are vital for the two 'main' political parties - the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) - and the same goes for their leaders, Petr Necas (who replaces Mirek Topolanek) and Jiri Paroubek. "2010 will be of major importance because the general election, and later on the senatorial elections will also decide on the representation of the parties before the presidential election in 2013,
" indicates political expert Petr Just. Indeed one third of the Czech Upper Chamber will be renewed next autumn.
The Czech Political System
The Czech Parliament is bicameral comprising the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The latter comprises 81 members elected for six years on a single majority list in two rounds and which is renewable by thirds. The choice of this mode of election matches the will of those who wrote the Constitution, and notably that of former President of the Republic (1993-2003), Vaclav Havel, who wanted to facilitate the election of independent personalities who were firmly established within the constituencies. The Senate however is still a largely misunderstood institution and the renewal of its members motivates few voters.
The Chamber of Deputies comprises 200 members for four years in a multi-nominal constituency election in which the distribution of votes is undertaken according to the greater remainder. All parties have to win a minimum of 5% of the votes cast to be able to be represented in parliament.
5 political parties are represented in the Chamber of Deputies at present:
- The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), founded by the present President, Vaclav Klaus and led since mid-April by Petr Necas who replaced former Prime Minister (2006-2009) Mirek Topolanek - 81 seats;
- The Social Democratic Party (CSSD), led by former Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, has 74 seats;
- The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) - the heir of the Communist Party of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia and the last non-reformed Communist party in Central Europe is led by Vojtech Filip - has 26 MPs;
- the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL), which lies to the right on the political scale is led by Cyril Svoboda, with 13 seats;
- The Green Party (SZ), founded in 1990, led by Ondrej Liska has 6 MPs.
A Democratic Civic Party in Disarray
On 20th March ODS leader and candidate for the post of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek granted an interview in which he explained the weaknesses - at least their tendency to "give up when the situation became difficult
" of Transport Minister Gustav Slamecka by the fact that he was homosexual and Prime Minister Jan Fischer because he was Jewish. In this interview he also accused the churches of "brainwashing the faithful in order to dominate better,
" and suggested "imprisoning those who ate pork and cabbage dumplings (a traditional Czech dish) because they voted Social Democrat and to kick their backsides,
" Mirek Topolanek excused himself afterwards for having spoken like this - saying that the words were taken out of context and had been badly interpreted. On 25th March he had to give up standing as lead candidate in the country's second town, Brno and on 12th April he resigned from his post as ODS leader.
This was not the first time that Mirek Topolanek, the first Head of government to fall after a no-confidence vote in Parliament in 2009, made mistakes in his attacks against journalists and with his vulgar, controversial declarations. In the spring of 2009 the Czechs did not really appreciate seeing him naked, surrounded by women in the Sardinian property of Italian Council President Silvio Berlusconi or to learn that in the summer of the same year he spent his holidays in Tuscany in the company of Czech industrialists and bankers. The former Prime Minister (2006-2009) had announced that he would leave his job if his party lost the general elections on 28th and 29th May next but his replacement had been planned for a long time by a party that has been diminished because of internal division. Although this change of leader seems dangerous just a few weeks before the election it might, according to political expert Jiri Pehe, provide new energy and a better image to the ODS.
The Civic Democratic Party which introduced a single 15% income tax and company tax is questioning increasing these. The ODS would like to introduce a single VAT rate (the normal rate is 19% and the reduced rate, 9%), which would lead to price rises and increase the burden on the poorest. To compensate for this increase the party is planning to review the fiscal system and tax the rich more, notably by increasing property tax. "The rich must take part one way or another in the national sacrifice since increases in taxes and VAT affect the poorest,
" declared Mirek Topolanek.
The ODS is planning a return to budgetary balance in 2017. "Czech society is threatened as in 1948 when the Communists took power with the defeat of freedom. In the post Second World War period the Communists said that speculators and rich peasants were responsible for the misery; now the populists say that the Liberals and the market are responsible for the recession. After the war salvation was supposed to come from the nationalization of the means of production; today friends of oppression and irresponsibility see the solution in piling up debts,
" said Mirek Topolanek on 24th February during a conference on the crimes committed by the Communist regime.
The Civic Democratic Party seems more divided and more uncertain about its position and its future than ever before. The replacement of Mirek Topolanek has not solved its leadership problems. The ODS has been destabilized by the creation of the party, TOP 09 which is attempting to attract rightwing voters and to position itself as a liberal alternative. "The Civic-Democratic Party does not need the Social Democratic Party to lose the elections,
" maintains political analyst Bohumil Pecinka who adds, "the present manoeuvres that are emerging within the party are the guarantee of failure in way it has not known up until now.
Mid-April Petr Necas threatened to stop his support of Jan Fischer's government in which after the depature of three ministers from the Green Party, the Social Democratic Party is now in the majority. "There is no reason for the Civic-Democratic Party to support a government in which Jiri Paroubek in fact has the majority,
" he declared, demanding that the ODS be given the right to appoint ministers to the vacant positions.
Newcomers on the Right
Lagging behind the Social Democratic Party in the polls can the Civic-Democratic Party plan for government in alliance with other parties if its leftwing rivals do not win the absolute majority? Towards which partners can it turn?
In June 2009 the ODS and its leader Mirek Topolanek convinced former Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, the KDU-CSL leader to quit his party to found a new one. Three of the 7 centrist MPs followed the latter and rallied in a movement called the Open Democracy Club, the TOP 09. The party which is clearly positioned on the right of the political scale is led by former Foreign Minister (2007-2009) Karel Schwarzenberg.
TOP 09 recommends a policy that is more in favour of companies. It supports the deregulation of the economy and wants to reduce social aid and unemployment benefits. "We are not offering new benefits or tax rebates and we are not making any promises that we shall not be able to keep,
" declared the party's founder, Miroslav Kalousek.
Supported by the Movement of Mayors and Independents TOP 09 is particularly appreciated by traditional voters close to the ODS. "In the entire history of the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 there has always been room for small political parties on the right of the political scale. These parties have always had an opportunity to enter the Chamber of Deputies and to complete the ranks of the big rightwing party that has been present since 2000 ie the Civic Democratic Party. And if we look at the polls it seems that TOP 09 is able to win more than 5% of the vote and that it might therefore play this role,
" analyses political expert Petr Just.
Founded in 2001 as a local group and led by former journalist Radek John, Public Affairs (VV) has experienced a recovery just a few weeks from the elections. The VV party is leading the fight against the "political dinosaurs
" (an expression which includes Jiri Paroubek as well as Mirek Topolanek) and corruption. He indicated that he would not make any alliance with either of the "big
" parties as long as they had not got rid of their totally discredited leaders. The party is demanding the respect of the Maastricht criteria for the adoption of the euro, a reform of the health sector and the Czech social system, an increase in spending on education and the adoption of a real anti-corruption strategy. Radek John is also, according to the most recent poll by STEM mid-April, the most popular politician in the country with a 61% positive opinion rate. In his wake comes former Finance Minister (2002-2004 and 2005-2006) Bohuslav Sobotka (CSSD) who enjoys 50%, Karel Schwarzenberg with 43% and the new ODS leader Petr Necas with 40%.
President Vaclav Klaus warned voters asking them to be mistrustful of the new and to think before voting for a newly created party. "The situation is totally unique. Until recently people knew more or less for whom to vote and partisan preferences were stable. Now everything has changed and the situation is extremely dangerous,
" said the Head of State.
2010, a year for the Social Democrats?
The Social-Democratic Party chose to denounce the measures established over the last three years of Civic Democratic Party rule (2006-2009) : reductions in social security allocations, medical fees introduced in January 2008 which oblige patients to pay 30 crowns on each consultation (90 crowns on a visit to the doctor out of hours), 30 crowns also for each prescription and 60 crowns for each day spent in hospital. Excluded from this measure are babies when they are still in the maternity clinic and children under 18 who have to undergo surgery. The CSSD has promised to do away with medical fees. The condemnation of these measures enabled it to win the regional elections on 17th and 18th October.
The CSSD is also promising to increase maternity benefits and healthcare reimbursement received by pensioners. Former Healthcare Minister (2005-2006), David Rath (CSSD) said that medical fees had not had the desired effect and warned that if the ODS wins the election it will form a coalition with TOP 09 and that medical fees will then be indexed. The Social Democrats have also promised to reduce chemists' fees and to re-introduce the payment of sick leave after three days of absence from work.
The CSSD also wants to decrease the number of healthcare insurance companies and transform them into state companies and non-profit making organisations. At present the Czech Republic has nine insurance companies, with VZP being the biggest. According to David Rath this measure would lead to savings of between four and five billion crowns. The party has promised to regulate energy, telecoms and bank services prices. It will increase taxes and re-introduce progressive income tax and establish a 38% taxation rate on income for those earning over 1.2 million crowns/year. The CSSD also wants to review progressive tax on inheritance beyond the 10 million crown mark and increase taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
In terms of the fight against corruption the Social Democrats have promised to update the financial police force and draw up a list of companies suspected of corruption. They indicated that they would use Joseph Wolfinger, former Deputy Director of the FBI, and Steve Pomerantz, former head of the FBI anti-terrorist unit to help them in the fight against financial crime.
Present Interior Minister Martin Pecina will lead the CSSD list in Prague. Martin Pecina may also retain his seat in government if the CSSD win. Apart from the former Jiri Paroubek might also take on former Healthcare Minister David Rath who would recover his post and Bohuslav Sobotka who might take over Finance, Zdenek-Skromach, the party's Vice-President since 2001 and former Social Affairs Minister (2002-2006), Lubomir Zaoralek, former speaker in the Chamber of Deputies (2002-2006) who would be appointed Foreign Minister, Milan Urban, former Trade and Industry Minister and Michal Hasek, regional governor of Southern Moravia. Economist Jan Svejnar, former economic advisor to Vaclav Havel from 1994-2003 and to Prime Minister Vladimir Spilda (CSSD) from 2002 and 2004 but also the unfortunate candidate in the Presidential run against Vaclav Havel in 2008 may be appointed to take care of Education. Finally Jan Kohout, present Foreign Minister may take over European Affairs.
"We prefer to cooperate with the centrist parties and primarily with the Christian Democratic Union- People's Party. It is what voters want. A major share of our electorate does not want a coalition with the Communists,
" repeats Jiri Paroubek. Many of the party's members are against a coalition such as this. In March Jiri Paroubek said that a minority government was the best solution if the CSSD won.
Vojtech Filip (KSCM) repeats that the CSSD is about to form a coalition with the ODS as they have done in several regions. Mirek Topolanek repeatedly condemns the Social Democrats saying they are going to govern with the Communists and recalls that voters will have no means of rejecting this cooperation after the elections. Finally Jiri Paroubek says that if the left (CSSD and the KSCM) do not win the majority his party will be able to form the next government. In short, just one month before the election anything is possible: ranging from the alliance of the CSSD with the KSCM to a major coalition between the CSSD and the ODS.
The Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia are both allies who each need one another and rivals who threaten each other. Vojtech Filip has helped to make the KSCM more pragmatic providing it with legitimacy and bringing it closer to the CSSD, resolutely trying to bring it out of the ostracism it has been victim of since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Jiri Paroubek has led a totally opposite policy since 2006 when he took over the CSSD. However the area between the two parties has closed over the years.
But Jiri Paroubek needs the KSCM more than the Communist leader needs the CSSD. The KSCM is however due to be demanding (and put permanent pressure on the CSSD) in exchange for its support for a minority Social Democratic government. We should remember that the Social Democrats promised in 1995 not to cooperate nationally with the KSCM in the Bohumin resolution, the name of the town in which the CSSD congress was held.
Although he repeats he will not need the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia Jiri Paroubek has never clearly excluded cooperation with the KSCM. "I would prefer a centre-left government - a minority government is a possible solution. I am not counting on the Communists for government,
" he declared without saying however who might support the potential minority government. Political analysts do not seem to believe in the creation of a grand right-left coalition, which is difficult to imagine after a year of government led by apolitical experts.
A new party has emerged on the left of the political scale. Former Prime Minister (1998-2002) Milos Zeman, who retired in 2003 after the failure of his election as president when he was beaten by Vaclav Klaus founded the Party of Citizens' Rights (SPO) in October. "I did not want to stand but I was accused of cowardice, so I decided to stand,
" he declared without officially pointing to Jiri Paroubek against whom he will be standing in the constituency of Usti nad Labem. Martin Bursik, former Green leader and former Environment Minister 2007-2009 and Petr Gandalovic (CSSD) will also be standing in this constituency. Milos Zeman wants to abolish the government resolution of 1991 which established the limits of coal extraction in this former mining region severely affected by unemployment. The Citizens' Rights Party is also in favour of direct democracy and is against medical fees.
The other Parties
The Green Party member of the government coalition led by Mirek Topolanek then Jan Fischer, announced on 22nd March that it was withdrawing its support from Jan Fischer's government. It lost control of the Environment Ministry which Jan Dusik was in charge of; it is now in the hands of the Agriculture Ministry. Following this two other Green Ministers including Michael Kocab, responsible for Human Rights resigned from office.
The Green Party has benefited in these general elections from the support of former President Vaclav Havel as well as many personalities from the cultural sphere: arts sponsor Meda Mladkova, actor Tomas Hanak and former dissidents and writers such as Ivan Klima and Ludvik Vaculik.
The party's leader Ondrej Liska is standing in Prague. Jirina Siklova, sociologist, journalist and former dissident is standing in Hradec Kralove and Frantisek Pelc in Central Bohemia.
But the Green Party is suffering from the image of being a divided party in which two camps fight each other without ever coming to agreement or finding clear solutions. The party lacks a leader who is able to rally its troops and convince them of the need to reach a compromise, the only way to influence political decisions. One positive point is their image of honesty, a real advantage in a country in which corruption is still rife. Hence the daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes has tried to trap political parties by offering each of them one million crowns in exchange for a modification of the law on the national lottery. The Green Party representative was the only one to refuse this deal.
The Christian Democratic Union-People's Party, in spite of the departure of a major share of its members to create TOP 09 may retain its seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The KDU-CSL enjoys great support in the most agricultural regions. Its leader Cyril Svoboda said that he would resign if the party did not succeed in entering Parliament.
On the far right the Workers Party (DS) led by Tomas Vandas, which was dissolved in February last for threatening democracy and extremism (it was the first case involving the dissolution of a political party in the Czech Republic since 1989), will be standing in the general elections alongside the Social Justice Workers Party (DSSS). It is putting forward homophobic, racist ideas with an ideology that resembles national-socialism. Four of its members Tomas Vandas, the party chairs, Jiri Stepanek and Petr Kotab and the editor of the party's newspaper, Martin Zbeda - have just been accused of promoting neo-nazism and hatred towards a group of people during a meeting which the party organised in Brno in May 2009.
The Sovereignty Party created by former MEP (non-inscrit) who was against the Lisbon Treaty, Jana Bobosikova will be standing in this election. Lawyer Klara Slamova will stand in Prague - this former Civic-Demcocratic Party Member said she was disappointed by the ODS which in her opinion has deviated from its initial programme - she also left because of the arrogance of some its leaders.
According to the latest poll by CVVM, published on 21st April the Social Democratic Party is due to win the election with 30% of the vote ahead of the Civic Democratic Party which is due to win 22.5%. In their wake come the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia who are due to win 13% of the vote, TOP 09 with 11.5% and Public Affairs, 9%. The Christian Democratic Union-People's Party and the Greens are not due to rise beyond the 5% threshold of votes necessary to be represented in the Chamber of Deputies. The last few weeks have revealed the collapse in support for the "big
" parties and the rise of the "small
The Social Democratic Party may be affected by the resignation of the leader of the Chamber of Deputies, Miloslav Vlcek (CSSD), who admitted breaking the law by paying back in cash one million crowns to his former assistant (in the Czech Republic any transfer of cash above 500,000 crowns is illegal).
Given the events of the last few months and notably the rise of new parties the composition of the next government may be uncertain until after the results have been announced. Outgoing Prime Minister Jan Fischer who accepted on 21st April to become Vice-President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on September 1st said that he would remain in office if the political parties did not manage to form a new government rapidly.