>Czech parties start billboard war, go negative

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Six weeks before the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic and the campaign is in full swing – at least in the media and in the rapid proliferation of billboards and campaign hoardings just about everywhere. By contrast, in the UK we have just over two weeks to go to our own poll and everything seems oddly low key. I have yet to see single billboard and media coverage is mercifully easy to escape.
In the CR, most of the running is being made by the Social Democrats, who have flooded the country with their trademark orange billboards with bland advertising style depiction of ‘ordinary people’ from different walks of life and clear promises to retain and/or increase social benefits of all kinds and to abolish the modest 30 crown charge introduced by the last centre-right government for visits to the doctor (I think most regional authorities – all bar Prague run by the Social Democrats – are paying it anyway, so de facto it may largely have been abolished already). The party also promises not to make swingeing cuts in public services, but to put up taxes and (especially) clobber the rich. Centre-right parties – the Civic Democrats and the new TOP09 party – are determined to make precisely such cuts and – by standards of the British campaign- are being pretty direct and up front about where the axe would fall , althought – as the Social Democrats point out – CR’s fiscal deficit is actually rather modest in comparison with the UK, although as a weaker and poorer economy Czechs should probably be concerned.

Other parties are conspicous by their billboard absence. I saw only one Christian Democrat billboard during the whole of my recent trip to the CR – the party is probably in disarray and/or out of cash – and none for the Civic Democrats, (ODS) although this seems to be a deliberate strategy to hold fire until the final two weeks of the campaign and rely on press advertising telling voters that the Social Democrats will hand their money to scroungers (picture of some muscular and rough looking bloke in a pub – presumably during the daytime). ODS have run a load of anonymous billboards satirising the Social Democrats’ big welfare message more overtly (‘Paroubek: I will abolish vets’ fees’, ‘ČSSD: we oppose getting up early in the morning’).

The Social Democrats have responded in kind with some still more blunt negative advertising showing various ODS leaders under the banner ‘Don’t blame us, you voted for us’ and one of ODS’s stand-in leader Petr Nečas proclaiming ‘We don’t care less about ordinary people: Charges for visiting the doctor will simply happen’. Going negative in the CR lacks a certain lightness of touch and element of humour, but I dare say it is effective.

And, how are things going in the Czech campaign? So far Social Democrats are comfortably ahead in the polls and look on course to emerge as largest pary (probably not gaining (m)any seats) and set for a minority government backed by the Communists with occasional deal making smaller parties of the centre and centre-right to get through some of the stuff the Communists won’t wear. Petr Nečas, performed better than expected in TV head-to-head with Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek – despite a somewhat cerebral geekish image, he was confident, to the point and able throw in a few sound bites, although was Paroubek better at hammering home basic messages likely to be understood and remembered by voters in their living rooms – but he seems unlikely to be a game changer.

The 64,000 crown question is, however, whether such left-right co-operation would extend to some of the more painful fiscal measures and rowing back from campaign promises – and certainly from he tone of the campaign – likely to be necessary in government. Paroubek, despite having built his political success in the last four years on being a bruising populist, made his early career as moderate and has plenty of experiences working with the right in Prague politics, so I suspect, in reality, he probably has a shrewd appreciation not only of how to win elections but also of what can and (more to the point) what cannot be delivered when they have been won.

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