>Czech Republic: What the elections mean
1. A sudden and unprecedented (but not irreversible?) decline of (big) established parties
Previously, however, when one big party declined the other picked up support – with the exception that is of the Opposition Agreement period (1998-2002) when the they co-operated politically as a part of a confidence and supply agreement to enable a minority Social Democrat government. In that period, however, existing parties (the Communists and a Christian-Democrat led centrist alliance) gained from voter discontent – or, at least, vote desire to vote against incumbents. As the lastest analysis at Pozorblog makes clear (see graph) the swing in support for new parties is unprecedented in Czech terms and pretty damn big in regional terms.
The 2010 result is still more striking because the fragmentation – and equalization – of the Czech party politics it has brought about – again Kevin Deegan-Krause has done the numbers over at Pozorblog – follows on an election result in 2006, which saw polarization and an large increas in support for both big parties. Indeed, in 2006 ODS polled a record vote. Such polarization seemed to be part of a CEE-wide trend at the time, but may now have been derailed.
‘New’ parties tend to work when they are breakaways from old parties – or recycled versions of earlier elites – with an aura of newness. Leaving aide the iconic Schwarzenberg, TOP09 seems run by hardened ex-Christian Democrats with a long political track record. What is TOP09 without the Prince? Public Affairs seems to form something of a fascinating exception here, but even here if you look closely you see that it has recycled part of many of the CR’s small off-the-radar liberal parties. The issue therefore seems to be just as the organizational stability and elite cohesion of existing parties in preventing breakaway projects and the ability of extraparliamentary politicians to bring together, mobilize and unite diffuse elements, than the voters ever changing moods.
One critical point, may be the ability or inability of new parties to take control of the regions – currently all run by Social Democrats with the exception of Prague. The battle for political control of the Czech capital in municipal elections in November will be an intresting test of whether TOP and VV can consolidate- although both are strong in the capital it will be a relatively easy initial test.
2. A victory for the centre-right, but a difficult to manage coalition
Still, given that the emerging Nečas government will need to make some tough financial decisions – and will be programmatic committed to doing – there are likely acute problems of party and coalition management, especially as TOP09 is itself a hastily put together conglomeration of ex-Christian Democrats, the odd ex-ODS politician and independent local politicians: seasoned with the odd businessman and emininent physian the latter group, especially, may have little experience of – or taste for – party discipline in parliament.
3. Instabilty, infighting and realignment on the centre-right
4. The rise of left-wing populist challenge to the Communists and Social Democrats
The Social Democrats, despite the shock of defeat, are in many ways in somewhat less of a crisis than ODS. True the robust confrontation welfare populism and negative campaigning of Paroubek era may be dumped – although, in fact, negative campaigning of the right against the lack of realism of Paroubek’s Social Democrats may have done the job in persuading many of their voters not to turn out – and a turn back to some quieter more moderate version of Czech social democracy is likely. However, that’s a cycle we’ve seen before with the shift from the bombastic Zeman to the technocratic Špidla to the even more bombastic Paroubek (leaving out the ill-fated, brief premiership of Stanislav Gross in 2004-5). The Social Democrats will also benefit from not being in government – and hence free to oppose unpopular cuts, and regroup and rethink – and are more experienced in bouncing back from bruising electoral setbacks and political meltdowns.
The unexpectedly good performance of two, little fancied minor left-wing parties: Zeman’s SPOZ and the Sovereignty party should give them food for though. Zeman’s party was regarded as something of joke and/or vanity project, having little more than Zeman himself, a bog standard centre-left programme with few new idea (rehashing ideas the Social Democrats have regularly used) and surprisingly large amounts of cash for national billboard advertising. Some wonder whether it was not a Russian style spoiler party deliberatly backed by interests favouring the right. If so, it succeeded brilliantly.
The somewhat less successful Sovereignty is, however, probably the one to watch and seems to be in for the longer term (Zeman has quit his own party): it has a more innovative blend of centre-left economics, anti-establishment rhetoric and a dosh of euroscepticism and in Jan Bobošiková – striking in trademark bright yellow dress – a striking figure with the cache of newness. Interestingly, Sovereignty and SPOZ seem to have picked up votes in quite different regions (see below) suggesting that scope for some more ambitious project – a Public Affairs (VV) of the left, if you will.
It has also not escaped attention that despite its Prague stronghold (its origins lie in local politics in the Czech capital) VV seems to have picked up more than a few left-wing voters – doing surprisingly well in the industrial Moravia-Silesia region in the North-West of the country.
The Mother of All Questions for the Czech left, however, is what will happen the Communist Party (KSČM) and its famously loyal voters? TOP09 was able to fell Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL)- another party with a loyal core electorate, but limited wider appeal. but only, arguably, because TOP was founded by ex-Christian Democrats and because part of the KDU electorate was a more floating and centrist one. Would parties of the populist left be able to do a similar job on KSČM? The Czech Communists are bigger with a bigger core electorate and its seems unlikely that there is a Czech Robert Fico concealed somewhere inside the party reading to launch a Czech Smer? The Czech Social Democrats and their voters would, however, seems to offer more than sufficient scope for a small-medium size new social-national party of the populist left.