Election preview: Czech Republic

The big election this week is in the Czech Republic, which will vote to elect a new parliament today and tomorrow. The centre-right coalition government of Petr Nečas resigned over a spy scandal in June, and subsequent political manoeuvring failed to produce any alternative to an early election.

The Czech Republic is generally regarded as the most successful and most westernised of the former Communist states of central Europe. It is a fully developed democracy, and a few years ago it seemed to be headed for a very familiar-looking two party system. At the 2006 election, the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties won more than two-thirds of the vote between them.

But things didn’t go on that way. At the last election, in 2010, the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) fell to just 20.2% (although it still emerged at the head of a governing coalition), and this time it looks like falling below 10%. The Social Democrats are in better shape, but still are unlikely to claw back much of the 10.2% swing they suffered last time.

TOP 09, which took third place in 2010, is seeking to supplant ODS as the main centre-right force. Recent polls also show strong gains for a new liberal party, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens. Despite a 5% threshold, there could be as many as eight parties represented in parliament. Also in the mix are the Christian Democrats, the Party of Civic Rights (a breakaway from the Social Democrats), and Dawn, a centrist party replacing the old Public Affairs.

The Communists, with 11.3% last time, look like making significant gains, and will probably become the second-largest party. This puts the Social Democrats in a major bind: it will be difficult to ignore the claims of the Communists if trying to form a centre-left government, but including them would alienate the centre parties – and no doubt a lot of voters as well. (Not to mention this artist.)

There seems little doubt that the various centre and centre-right parties will have a majority between them, but creating a workable coalition out of the mix would be a nightmare. More likely, the Social Democrats will manage to bring enough of the centre parties on side to at least get first try at forming a government, but its stability would be questionable, to say the least.

It’s all a lesson in trying to read too much into European elections. Although there are definitely continent-wide trends – such as the swing to the left over the last couple of years – there is a constant risk of over-interpreting any individual result. Local factors are so important and party systems are so different that the broader message can be hard to spot, if indeed it exists at all.

That will certainly be the case if the Czechs get a parliament as fragmented as the polls are suggesting.

Unlikely to help in this situation is the fact that Czech president Miloš Zeman is very much a political actor in his own right and will probably enjoy playing off the politicians against one another to create a government to his liking. Karel Schwarzenberg, leader of TOP 09, has been particularly critical of Zeman’s inflated idea of his role, so any centre-right government is likely to have trouble in that direction.

On the other hand, if the different parties could first agree on a program of clipping the president’s wings, that might make their subsequent deal-making quite a bit easier.

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