>Czeching out the Senate elections

>I’ve been musing over the results of the Senate elections – that’s the Czech Senate elections of 13-14 and 20-21 October, of course, not the bigger more important contest going on over the Pond. As in the US the Czechs re-elect 1/3 of their Senate ever couple of years on a staggered basis. Unlike the Yanks, however, they use a French style two round system of voting with run-off elections between the top two candidates a week after the first ballot if no candidate gets an absolute majority. This has the effect of opening the system to third parties, tempering the tendency of the first-past-the-post system to create two horse races and two party systems somewhat.

The headline result is that the Civic Democrats, having got through the second round in 26/27 contests, won 14 seats and made gains sizeable enough to gain a majority in the upper house (41/81 seats). This is the first time a single party has managed this feat – although the Quad-Coalition alliance of four parties managed pretty much the same thing in 2000 – and fits in with the shift in public opinion towards the party after its Pyrrhic victory in parliamentary elections this June (big gains; weak coalition partners; no majority). Below the radar, however, the real winners may again be the Social Democrats, who won 6 Senators, gaining five and beating ODS in a straight fight in five of eleven contests, managing to push out sitting ODS Senators in Ostrava (Topolánek’s home town) and Mlada Boleslav (home of Škoda cars andfor many years had the district with highest average wages in the country) .

As Social Democrat leader Paroubek astutely hammered home to win these contests you need hard campaigning local politicians not intellectuals with Olympian ideas.

This was discovered to his cost by Christian Democratic Senator, ex-Senate Chairman and ex-Czech PM Petr Pithart, one of the few dissidents still active in politics, whose long running career almost came crashing down (again) when he came within 25 votes of losing to an energetic ODS mayoress. The Czech Senate is increasingly a collection of ex-mayors and independents with local power bases –equivalent in a weird kind of way to the German Bundesrat , although the CR is not a federal state – rather than the Hayekian institution of high-minded liberal gents imagined by the Civic Democrat Alliance when they helped push through the idea of a second chamber in the early 1990s.

The Christian Democrats lost a couple of seats but didn’t fare too badly. Their most impressive victory was in Vsetín – real historic Christian Democrat country down near the Slovak border in the so-called ‘Moravian Slovakia’ region – but helped rather motr, I suspect, by their candidate’s record as mayor in shipping local Roma families who had big rent arrears for out of municipally owned housing in the centre of town into prefabs out in the middle of nowhere to create a Slovak style shanty town. What will the European People’s Party have to say about that, I wonder?

The real losers were the liberal Freedom Union who retained none of their five Senators up for re-election – no real surprise since the party has been poliitcally dead since about 2002.
Liberal voices are, however, represented in the Senate in the form of a plethora of micro-parties with one Senator – the logic seemingly being that independents with strong local electoral appeal hook up with some non-parliamentary group registered as party and save themselves the effort of gathering 1000 signatures, while the party gets some state funding. There are 16 Senators for small liberal parties and local independent groups in the 81 member Senate, although the European Democrats, the only real strong extra-parliamentary party, do have three.

Czech media and politicians have been predictably banging on about low turnout (30% in the first round, around 15% in the second) – Klaus spoke of an erosion of liberal values – but although indeed low like most electoral non-participation it is totally rational. The Senate has very weak powers and other than for electoral or constitutional legislation, it veto is easily overturnable by the lower house. Not a lot is at stake. The ultra-low second round turnouts also reflect the fact that Czechs just do not do tactical voting and on the whole only supporters of the top two candidates bother to vote. Interestingly, only local mayors and locally well known independents seem able to pile on additional votes in the second round. An unknown local surgeon romped home with 75% of the vote in one district – he was always nice to his patients apparently. Several ODS candidates, by contrast, who had topped the first ballot actually lost votes and were pipped at the post.

And the political consequences? Well, ODS can block any changes to the constitution or the electoral system it doesn’t like. The Christian Democrats and Civic Democrats now have enough votes across both chambers to re-elect President Klaus next February (just) and the Social and Civic Democrats together have a constitutional majority (60% in both house) and could remake the country’s entire political system, if they could actually agree on anything.

Likely outcomes – either very little change in the electoral system (an odd, rather than even number of deputies) or fairly big changes squeezing out minor parties even more if the Civic and Social Democrats reach a big deal. Either way four more years of Klaus in Prague Castle (unless the Christian Democrats go into meltdown which having re-electing the conservative Jan Kasal as leader, I suspect they will not).

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