>Electoral reform back on the agenda in the Czech Republic

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Oh no, they’re at it again. After the saga of abortive electoral reform in 1999-2001 undertaken in the interest of stability – at least that’s what they said – by the Czech Republic’s two main parties during the era of their’Opposition Agreement’ pact, you would have thought Czech politicians had learned their lesson. But no. The governing coalition is currently reviewing options for reforming the electoral system to the lower house of parliament to break the political logjam, which has seen no strong majority government since 1996.

Last time round, it was a straightforward effort to increase the representation of bigger parties at the expense of smaller but introducing a highly disproportional form of proportional representation that could just about squeeze through the constitutional requirement to use PR for the lower chamber of parliament. It didn’t and a more modest reform reducing the size of electoral districts was passed in 2002 instead. (The two bigger parties lacked the votes to change the Constitution and besides, any change, in the electoral law requires majorities in both houses of parliament to pass, unlike normal legislation where the lower house has the final say).

Now, however, the goal is ensure a strong majority government and avoid squeezing useful little parties like the Greens. The options outlined by the Justice Ministry – whittled down from an original nine to six in inter-ministerial discussions – centre mainly on two-tier forms of PR which give a bonus in seats to the party with the largest vote at the expense of the second strongest, but give smaller parties roughly proportional representation. The Czech press reports that ‘Scottish’, ‘Dutch’ and ‘Greek’ models are being considered, although I am not sure how accurate these analogies are. An Italian style awarding of a direct bonus to the winning party has been ruled out as too crude and probably unconstitutional, as has a ‘Polish’ model of having parallel thresholds. Readers who know Czech are recommended to click through from the link(s) above to the excellent coverage in Hospodářské noviny.

Applied to the 2006 elections, the net effect of the all the proposels models would be to reduce the Social Democrats representation at the expense largest party (the centre-right Civic Democrats) and the smallest party, their allies (at least for the moment – internecine faction fighting at the upcoming Green Party conference may change this. Indeed the government may collapse). However, if the 2006 vote was reproduced and the Greens don’t implode or move left, such changes would give the current Civic Democrat/Christian Democrat/Green coalition a working majority. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – it’s the Social Democrats who are currently ahead in the polls and thus likely to benefit if one of these is adopted. The result might actually be another minority Social Democratic government playing off ‘support parties’ to their left (the Communists) and right (the Greens or whatever liberal eco-centrist types can make it into parliament – there have been a few over the years), the basis of the fairly successful 1998-2002 government.

Personally, I am sceptical that the requisite political hurdles can be crossed to change the electoral system. Much will depend whether the Social Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Communists think it will benefit them politically.

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