Czechs swing to the centre

The weekend’s Czech election produced a result every bit as confused as expected. Seven parties will be represented in the new parliament, none of them with more than a quarter of the seats. (Official results are here.)

Four parties that could broadly be described as “centrist” or “liberal” – Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), TOP 09, the Christian Democrats and Dawn – have won a bare majority between them, 101 of the 200 seats. Realistically, that’s not enough to try to form a government; they would have to draw in either the traditional centre-right party, ODS, whose support plummeted to 7.7% and just 16 seats, or else the Social Democrats, who remain the largest party although they also went backwards, to 20.5% and 50 seats.

The success of ANO, which won 18.7% to become the second-largest party, has put paid to any traditional left or right government. The members of the last centre-right coalition (even counting Dawn, which has replaced Public Affairs) have only 56 seats between them. The Social Democrats plus the Communists (a much-discussed combination) are closer but still well short of a majority on 83.

The likely combination being talked about is a three-party coalition of the Social Democrats, ANO and the Christian Democrats, which would have a reasonably healthy total of 111 seats. Andrej Babiš, the billionaire leader of ANO, had initially been cool on the idea of co-operation with the Social Democrats, but more recent reports have him willing to come to an agreement.

(Note that Babiš’s change of heart hasn’t made it to the BBC report, which is already a case study in how not to report an election result: it gives no figures for seats at all and therefore leaves the reader with no handle on what’s happening.)

If things were not difficult enough, the picture has been complicated by an internal revolt within the Social Democrats, whose presidium is trying to remove its leader, Bohuslav Sobotka, and replace him with deputy Michal Hašek. Apparently Hašek is close to Czech president Miloš Zeman, a former Social Democrat and all-round troublemaker.

Zeman’s own party, the Party of Civic Rights, failed to reach the threshold for representation, managing only 1.5%. His supporters may have realised that he would end up having a deciding role in the Social Democrats, although that perception in turn may have hurt the latter party. Reuters quotes political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova saying that “Many centrist voters were really afraid that a vote for the Social Democrats is in fact a vote for Zeman.”

On any analysis this is a poor result for the centre-left, yet if the result is the replacement of an ODS prime minister by a Social Democrat one it will go down as a shift to the left. It’s another example of what I described on Friday as the “constant risk of over-interpreting any individual result.”

That hasn’t deterred Nick Reece, former Victorian ALP state secretary, who in Mark Latham’s recent book, Not Dead Yet, writes that “In 1999 all but two EU governments were controlled by social democratic parties. Today only ten out of twenty-eight member states have a centre-left government (in 2011 it was just five out of twenty-seven).”

The clause in parentheses might have led him to question whether the swing against the left was still going on, but after noting a couple of recent successes he concludes (p. 240) that nonetheless “the broad trend is strikingly clear.”

In fact it seems pretty clear that the last two years or so have been pretty good for the European left. According to the most recent results, that trend may now be petering out. Even so, by my count there are now twelve broadly centre-left governments in the EU; if Luxembourg and the Czech Republic join the list, it will look fairly impressive, although still not on the scale of 2001.

The left has got its problems, but it’s not at all clear that the right is in any better shape. Instead, voters are flocking to novel and populist parties, registering a protest vote at their continent’s continued economic woes and the apparent incompetence of its political class. The same impulse that brought Clive Palmer’s party 5.5% of the vote at its first attempt in Australia, despite our relatively healthy economy, has had a correspondingly larger impact in Europe.

This shouldn’t be overstated. So far, the beneficiaries are relatively moderate and there is no sense that anyone has much of an appetite for extreme solutions. But the public is certainly starting to get impatient, and the established parties could well start by taking a good look at the Czech result.

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