03/10/2017 - Analysis
On 6th April last Milos Zeman, President of the Czech Republic announced that on 20th and 21st October next, the Czechs would be called to renew the 200 members of the House of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament. 7,539 people (of whom 29% are women) from 31 political parties are running in this general election, i.e. an average of 38 candidates for one MP's seat. This sets a record in the Czech Republic.
The country has been led since 2013 by a government coalition comprising the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), led by outgoing Home Affairs Minister Milan Chovanec, ANO, led by Andrej Babis, and the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL), a centrist party led by Pavel Belobradek.
Andrej Babis and Lubomir Zaoralek, Foreign Affairs Minister and lead candidate for the CSSD in the general election have accepted to meet and debate on TV Nova on 19th October. "Decent and honest, man to man, I accept," declared Andrej Babis, who in the past has always refused any debate of this kind.
Czechs living abroad will be able to fulfil their civic duty in 109 ballot boxes around the world. During the previous general election on 25th and 26th October 2013, 10,500 of them voted. The official campaign officially starts on 4th October next.
ANO won in the regional elections that took place on 7th and 8th October 2016 with 21.05% of the vote. The party drew ahead of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which won 15.5% of the vote, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), 10.54% and the Democratic-Civic Party (ODS) 9.47%.
The most recent poll by CVVM credits ANO with 30.9% of the vote on 21st October next, far ahead of the Social Democratic Party (13.1%), the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (11.1%), the Civic-Democratic Party (9.1%), Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), the populist right-wing party led by Tomio Okamura (7.3%), the Pirate Party (6.2%) and the Christian Democratic Party-People's Party (6.2%). According to the polls most voters will decide on their choice in the week prior to the election.
The end of a tumultuous legislature
At the beginning of last May Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (CSSD) asked his Finance Minister and deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis to explain some financial transactions, notably the origin of a sum of 1.5 billion crowns (55 million €), and also regarding an accusation of tax fraud and many incidences of conflict of interest. Deeming that he could not get a satisfactory answer from his minister, Bohuslav Sobotka announced the resignation of his government in order to oust Andrej Babis from office. The President of the Republic, Milos Zeman then rejected the government's collective resignation. Andrej Babis denied all knowledge of any financial wrongdoing and stressed that by trying to get rid of him, the Prime Minister was not respecting the government coalition agreement that he had signed with him. The Finance Minister finally quit office on 24th May. He was replaced by Ivan Pilny.
On 6th September last, the House of Deputies approved by 123 votes (4 against and 7 abstentions) the removal of Andrej Babis's parliamentary immunity together with that of Jaroslav Faltynek, ANO's Deputy Chair and former member of the executive of Agrofert, an agro-food and chemical holding owned by Andrej Babis.
The two men are suspected of having illegally favoured Capi Hnizdo (Stork's Nest), a conference centre to the south east of Prague providing it with 50 million crowns (1.85 million €) in European subsidies in 2009 that were given in support of SMEs and tourism. In 2008, Andrej Babis is said to have removed Capi hnizdo from his holding Agrofert, giving this company to anonymous shareholders, thereby hiding the names of its owners, a practice that is now banned but allowed at the time. After a five year period that features in this bill, Andrej Babis took back the company within his agro-food and chemical holding, which incidentally, is the most important employer in the Czech private sector (a workforce of 30,000).
The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) also launched an inquiry regarding the financing of Capi hnizdo.
Andrej Babis asked MPs to vote in support of the lifting of his parliamentary immunity. "I want you to vote in support of lifting my parliamentary immunity so that the truth can be revealed," he said, maintaining that he wanted to "clear his name". He says that the leaders of the traditional parties want to destroy ANO and eject it from the political arena. "It is a desperate gesture on the part of those who want drive me from the political scene," he stressed.
In spite of all these problems and the obstacles he faces, Andrej Babis is still popular. "It seems that the campaign undertaken against Andrej Babis by nearly all of the Czech political parties over the last few weeks have rather more helped his popularity to rise. Stepping up the campaign with the government's resignation has therefore proved counter-productive," declared Veronika Bilkova, professor of international policy at the Charles University, Prague. ANO is still the favourite in the general elections, even though the party might encounter difficulties in finding allies with whom to form a coalition and therefore in fine be prevented from putting the next government together. Andrej Babis has always said that the political parties were all corrupt and incompetent; this has helped him attract a great many voters who have been disappointed by the traditional parties, but it has also reduced quite significantly the number of possible alliances.
It is also hard to see what will happen (and what the law allows) if the general elections are won by a man who is under investigation.
President of the Republic Milos Zeman has said that he would appoint the leader of the party which comes out ahead in the election as prime minister. The head of State should however be careful, since a government led by Andrej Babis might not win the MPs' confidence, which would trigger a political crisis which Milos Zeman does not need just months before the next presidential election in which he is standing. The head of State has said that he prefers a coalition that would bring together ANO and the Social Democratic Party (CSSD).
Andrej Babis likes to recall that he is a self-made man and hopes to manage the State as he manages his businesses. A man of action he believes, like Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump, that his qualities as a business man qualify him perfectly for the leadership of the Czech Republic. His personal fortune is estimated at 2.2 billion €.
In his party's programme we find that all tax increases are rejected and the aim is to reduce the number of ministers from 16 to 13 (suppression of the Human Rights Ministry and merger of the Ministry for Agriculture with that of the Environment). Andrej Babis also hopes that the EU will open reception centres for migrants in Tunisia and Turkey, according to New York's Ellis Island model and that NATO will control the EU's external borders to prevent migrants entering the Union.
The Electoral Campaign
The outgoing government coalition has been one of the most stable in the Czech Republic's recent history. It has also honoured several of its electoral promises. Wages in the civil service have increased five times since 2013. They will be increased again for the sixth time by 11% (+ 1,200 crowns, i.e. 46.18 €) before the elections. The minimum wage that 132,000 people receive, i.e. 3.6% of the working population, will be brought up to 12,200 crowns (469.50 €/month), which represents 40% of the country's average wage. We might also note that the Czech Republic is an EU Member State in which the unemployment rate is the lowest (2.9% in August last).
The Social Democratic Party, whose leader for theses elections is Lubomir Zaoralek, Foreign Affairs minister, and which chose the election credo "a country where life is good" is presenting an extremely left-wing programme, which traditionally promises more redistribution, an increase in social aid (covered by an increase in taxes on banks and international companies) and the minimum wage. The CSSD hopes to see the latter rise to 16,000 crowns (615.80 €) by 2022 and the average wage to increase to around 40,000 crowns (1,539 €). Finally the Social Democrats would like to reintroduce a progressive tax and relinquish the flat tax (a set tax rate of 15% on households and 19% on businesses) –a programme that tends to frighten the markets.
Miroslav Korecky, a journalist for the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, notes that the programmes of the social democrats and the communists are very close. The latter also want to reintroduce socialism, the Czech Republic's exit of NATO and the nationalisation of the energy, telecommunications and transport sectors. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, the only party never to have participated in government in the Czech Republic, has chosen the electoral credo "Peace in the world, justice and security at home."
The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) led by Petr Fiala is undertaking a right-wing campaign promising tax reductions and cuts in public spending. The Eurosceptic ODS is against the euro and is rejecting the European approved programme of re-distribution of refugees from the Middle East (Syria and Iraq) and Africa (Ethiopia, Libya) within the Member States.
The Christian-Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) led by the outgoing Agriculture Minister Marian Jurecka, originally joined forces with the Mayors and Independents (STAN), a party led by Petr Gazdik, for the general election before renouncing this alliance in July because it was afraid of not being able to achieve the 10% threshold of votes cast that is vital to be represented in the House of Deputies for a coalition rallying two political parties. The KDU-CSL programmes focuses on the family, education and innovation. The credo chosen by the party is just one word: "Responsibility".
The Czech Political System
The Czech Parliament, which is bi-cameral - comprises the Senate and the House of Deputies. The latter comprises 200 MPs elected for four years under a multi-member system in 14 constituencies in which the distribution of votes is undertaken using the d'Hondt method. Every party has to win a minimum of 5% of the votes cast (10% for coalitions rallying two parties, 15% for coalitions rallying three parties and 20% for coalitions with four parties and more) to be represented in the lower house of parliament. Candidates must be aged at least 21.
Voters can express their preference for four candidates registered on the list. Candidates winning more than 5% of the preferential votes regionally are then placed at the top of their party's list. When several candidates win more than 5% of the preferential votes they are then ranked in decreasing order, according to the total number of preferential votes they have collated.
For the first time this year spending allowed during the electoral campaign has been capped at 90 million crowns (3.3 million €) for each party.
Voting takes place over two days (Friday and Saturday mornings). During the night the ballot boxes remain inside the voting stations, generally set up in public buildings, but also sometimes in private buildings, such as for example in the hotels of some villages. However, no election result has ever been challenged since the then Czechoslovakia returned to democracy.
The Czech Senate comprises 81 members elected for six years according to a majority two round single list system - with a third being renewable every two years. The choice of this type of election expresses the will of those who wrote the Constitution and notably that of former President of the Republic (1993-2003), Vaclav Havel; the idea was to make it easier to elect independent personalities who are soundly established within their constituencies.
Finally since 2013 the Czechs elect the president of the Republic by universal suffrage. The first election of this type took place on 11th and 12th January (1st round) and 25th and 26th January 2013 (2nd round). It was won in the second round by Milos Zeman (Civic Rights Party, SPO) with 54.8% of the vote against Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09, who won 45.2% of the vote.
7 political parties entered the House of Deputies after the last general elections on 25th and 26th October 2013:
– the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), founded in 1878 and led by Milan Chovanec, member of the outgoing government coalition, is the party of outgoing Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. It has 50 seats;
– ANO, whose acronym means both "yes" and Dissatisfied Citizens Action, is a populist party founded in 2012 by Andrej Babis, who still leads the movement. A member of the outgoing government, it has 47 seats;
– the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), created in 1989, the last unreformed communist part in Central Europe, is led by Vojtech Filip, with 33 seats;
– Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity 09 (TOP 09), a centre-right party, founded in 2009 and chaired by Miroslav Kalusek, has 26 MPs;
– the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), a Eurosceptic right-wing party created in 1991 and led by Petr Fiala with 16 seats;
– Usvit (Dawn of Direct Democracy), a populist party founded by Tomio Okamura led by Miroslav Lidinsky, with 14 seats;
– the Christian-Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL), the centrist party by Pavel Belobradek, has 14 seats.
Reminder of general elections on 25th & 26th October2013 in the Czech Republic