Czech Republic: Why all parties will lose early elections

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Photo: Ntr23 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If as British prime-minister Harold Wilson famously commented, a week is a long time in politics, then a month can be an eternity.

This is certainly the case in the Czech Republic, where both anti-corruption probe that spectacularly brought down the government of prime minister Nečas in May and technocratic caretaker government that President Zeman imposed on a less than enthusiatic parliament have largely collaped.

 The Czech Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of parliamentary immunity of 26 July saw most of the key dramatis personnae from the political world released from jail and charges withdrawn. It remains to be seen whether lines investigation focusing on the affairs of politically-connected business ‘godfathers’ or the misuse of military intelligence to monitor the then prime minister’s wife lead anywhere, but so little has been heard.

 Meanwhile on 7 August as expected, Miloš Zeman’s handpicked ‘government of experts’ under former finance minister Jiří Rusnok failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament. The real story, however, was the disunity of centre-right parties, whose claims they still had a parliamentary majority – and hence a claim to go on governing– were shot to pieces by the failure of three right-wing deputies to vote against Rusnok, the culprits being two Civic Democrat deputies with previous form and the mercurial Karolina Peake, leader of the tiny LIDEM party.

 As political reality dawned on the right, discussion moved at breakneck speed to early elections as centre-right parties agreed to vote with the Social Democrats to dissolve parliament to bring about the early elections left-wing parties claimed they really had always wanted all along.

 Parliament votes tomorrow (20 August) and – despite some speculation from the Zeman camp and some journalists that dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies may not, after all, be a done deal – it seems likely that the Czech Republic will be heading for early elections in October.

 There seems little doubt about who will win (the left) and lose (the right), but the prospect nevertheless raises some crucial questions about the future shape of Czech politics.

Will Miloš Zeman boss the Czech left?

 SAM_1997Although Rusnok’s government failed to win confidence, with 93 votes and (in the end) solid parliamentary backing from both Communist and Social Democrats it was far from humiliated. Even if early elections mean that Rusnok and his colleagues will have limited time to enjoy life in office as a majority-less caretaker ‘government in resignation’–  their patron Milos Zeman emerges from the recent political crisis hugely  strengthened.

 Zeman’s risk-taking strategy and willingness to flout constitutional conventions over the past weeks seem to have paid off for him handsomely, establishing him as powerful player in domestic party politics and humiliating Bohuslav Sobotka, the would-be modernising leader of the Social Democrats (ČSSD), in the process. Sobotka’s virulent opposition to Zeman’s caretaker government project melted like snow in the sun when it turned out that most of his party’s leadership, membership and electorate saw Rusnok et al as quite acceptable.

 As in the presidential election campaign earlier this year, Zeman’s instincts about the reactions – and frustrations – of (left-wing) Czech voters and as his calculations about the balance of forces in ČSSD and reactions of the Communists proved absolutely on the money.

 The question now is if – and how – Zeman will use his expanding influence. It seems a racing certainty that left-wing parties will emerge with a majority after election- but the question is which left-wing parties and under which leaders. Overall, the Czech left may seems emerge as a much more fragmented force: the president’s own personal party, the Citizens’ Rights Party, Zemanites (SPOZ) seems likely to emerge as a parliamentary force with 5-10% of the vote; the Social Democrats will be more openly split between pro- and anti-Zeman faction with some kind of ‘modernising’ breakaway party not be excluded if Zeman supporters decide to give Bohuslav Sobotka the chop. Left-liberals like Jiří Pehe are already lamenting that they are politically homeless.

 And on the other end of the modernising spectrum, the Communists, whose strategic focus was once a fairly straightforward one of managing relations with Social Democrats now face some complex calculations, not least because Zeman and SPOZ reach the voters that other parties fail to get to and also appeal to some of their supporters.

 The idea of a formal, unified left-wing bloc under the informal leadership of Zeman (a kind of functional equivalent of Slovakia’s SMER) – floated his supporters raised in the first few weeks of his term – is perhaps a fata morgana. But despite toothache and diabetes, the new president has not really put a foot wrong politically in the last year and has demonstrated the kind of flair for ruthless improvisation that bring success in politics. Especially Czech politics.

 Can the Civic Democrats survive?

Politické odpoledne v Hradci Králové

Photo: Suchosch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The exact circumstances which led two ODS deputies not to vote against Rusnok are unclear, although links to Zeman camp via the Zlín business world and the power-broking ‘lobbyist’ Tomáš Hrdlička are not hard to trace. But they add to the impression of the Civic Democrats as a corrupt, disorganised and exhausted party that cannot deliver votes let alone policies.

 The party currently languishes at around 8-12% in the polls. This is perhaps not that bad considering everything it’s been through – and the party has made a few smart moves amid the general disintegration: the unexpected choice of parliamentary speaker Miroslava Nemcová, as its de facto leader; the rapid expulsion of Hrdlička from its ranks; the decision to keep candidate selection centralised and, where, get independent ODS-aligned figures to head electoral lists; or thinking in terms of an electoral strategy based around apologetic but positive political mood music, rather than policies all make sense. Václav Klaus has also probably done his old party a favour but refusing those in ODS begging him to return to save them one of the proverbial Knights of Blaník.

 But it may all be too little too late. ODS has been in steady relentless electoral decline even in its urban heartlands since 2006 and its support and credibility seems dangerous close to the tipping point at which voters and supports could abandon it en masse as lost cause. While, it certainly ain’t over, early elections in October may simply prove so catastrophic for the party that it be wiped  from the electoral map.

 The party’s real problem is that since 2010 right-wing voters have had some somewhere else to go – to its rival and former coalition partner TOP09, the party led by ex-foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and ex-finance minister. TOP09 seems likely to achieve its strategic goal of becoming the main party on the Czech centre-right.

 It is unclear how long Schwarzenberg will remain in politics and whether his retro-aristocratic charisma will work again; or how safe is from anti-corruption probes Miroslav Kalousek and others are, although Kalousek (and TOP09) may paradoxically benefit among right-wing voters from being built up by Zeman and others as the biggest, baddest free-market reformers. And, in truth, the tough and abrasive Kalousek actually makes a well argued, head-headed plain speaking for reform that is worth listening to (some voters will). Kalousek has also done well to play the anti-Zeman card for all it is worth depicting the president as a Czech Putin in the making.

Will the Czech party system melt down?

 SAM_1998With its small membership, reliance on alliances with local independents and fragile electoral base, TOP09 will in many ways to an unworthy successor to ODS. Polls and electoral estimates suggest it will be hard pushed to win much more that 15% of the vote let alone unite broad swathes right-wing and liberal voters in the way Karel Schwarzenberg did in the presidential elections. And it should not be forgotten that before those elections, it was TOP09 not ODS that had slipped below 10% in the polls and into the political danger zone.

 With the rise of Zeman and the Zemanovci and the strange death of ODS there seems to be a bigger story playing other. Overall, both main parties which have been the two pillars of the Czech political system over last 20 – Civic and the Social Democrats – years seem to be melting down, ushering a phase in Czech politics which there will be looser, more fragmented political blocs composed of smaller, weaker, less stable parties. These seem likely to be even less transparent, more-leader-centred and more beholden to vested interests and ‘political businessmen’ like Hrdlička than current parties.

 Logically, this process seems also to opportunities for new parties peddling an anti-establishment, anti-political, anti-corruption message to break from nowhere – as happened in 2010 with the emergence of the Public Affairs party. The main contenders for the role Czech Berlusconi have for some time been food and agro-business billionaire Andrej Babiš who leads the ANO2011 movement and the (considerable less wealthy) Tomio Okamura who leads the Dawn grouping. Both want to run the Czech Republic like a business, abolish corruption and empower citizens through various forms of direct democracy.

 It is possible that neither will do so. Babiš’s movement has the money and organisation, but – like Slovakia’s 99% – Citizen’s Voice – comes across too much a calculated project to quite appeal. Okamura leads a more genuinely grassroots movement of populists and politician haters and – at least in his home region of Zlín (for which he is a Senator) -has some proven electoral appeal, but is likely to struggle organisationally and financially, especially if there is the incredibly tight schedule early elections would impose.

 Overall, the warnings sounded by Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka in the weeks before the Rusnok government faced parliament about the risk to democracy posed by Zeman’s SPOZ as an opaque ‘commercial party’ with little respect for constitutional proprieties built around a political strongman were very well made. Sadly, while an intelligent and perceptive politician, Sobotka – like Petr Nečas when he took the helm in ODS in 2010 as a geekish Mr Clean – lacs internal support in his own party and the strategic skills needed to deliver an effective, modern, independent governing party and pragmatically  caved in.

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