Czech Republic (regional and Senate) 2012

Regional elections and the first round of senatorial elections were held in the Czech Republic on October 12-13, 2012. The Czech Republic is divided into thirteen regions in addition to Prague. These regions (kraje) were created in 2000 as second-level administrative divisions to replace the old 73 districts. Each region has a regional legislature elected directly through PR with a 5% thresholds, these legislatures in turn elect a regional president. Since their creation in 2000, there have been efforts at devolution to these regional governments, envisioned as better able to handle local government responsibilities than small municipalities. While it has been said that these regions have a great array of powers at their disposal, they have not used them much and regional government remains pretty weak. Voters, furthermore, have not identified much with these new regions, they preferred the old districts.

The Czech Senate, meanwhile, has 81 members elected by thirds every two years for six year terms. They are elected in single-member constituencies through the two round system. The Senate is a toothless body, which can delay laws passed by the lower house but its veto may be overridden by the lower house with only an absolute majority. Because of its redundancy and weak powers, there have been many calls to abolish the Senate. As a result of the 2008 and 2010 renewals, the opposition social democrats (ČSSD) now have a narrow absolute majority in the Senate.

The last general election, held in 2010, resulted in a centre-right government led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS). He leads a coalition including the ODS, traditionally the major right-wing party in the country and the newer right-wing and more pro-European TOP09 led by Karel Schwarzenberg. Until April 2012, the anti-corruption gadfly Public Affairs (VV) party led by former TV journalist Radek John participated in the coalition, until the party was forced out because of disagreements with the government’s austerity policies. VV, which had broken through in the 2010 general election, collapsed almost as quickly as it had emerged. Like most of these populistic “anti-corruption” outfits, VV wasn’t too clean either: one of its cabinet ministers was accused of taking a bribe. In April 2012, VV was kicked out due to disagreements with the austerity policies, but a split occured when some deputies – led by another cabinet minister, Karolína Peake – wanted to stay in the coalition and formed their own party, LIDEM. VV’s expulsion means that the cabinet is now only a minority government.

Since 2010, the Nečas cabinet has implemented stringent austerity measures, including cutting investment, public spending and raising taxes. The country’s economy shrank by 4.7% in 2009, and it may have be in a double-dip recession now: GDP is projected to shrink by 1% in 2012, down from +1.7% last year. However, the country’s deficit has been getting smaller: 3.2% of the GDP in 2011, down from 5.8% of the GDP in 2009. The cabinet is dead-set on getting the deficit below the EU’s 3% limit, it has recently introduced a bill to raise the VAT by 1% and raise taxes for high earners. These policies have largely been unpopular with voters. But voters are also angry over corruption scandals, which have also touched the inept opposition (ČSSD, social democrats). A prominent ČSSD old-timer (a former minister and current regional president  of Central Bohemia), David Rath, got canned for taking bribes and kickbacks.

Turnout was 36.89% in the regional elections, down from 40.3% in 2008. In the 27 senate districts up for reelection, turnout was 34.9%, down from 42.09% in 2006 (the last time they were up). Results for the regional elections overall were as follows, compared to the 2008 regional elections:

ČSSD 23.58% (-12.27%) winning 205 seats (-75)
KSČM 20.43% (+5.4%) winning 182 seats (+68)
ODS 12.28% (-11.29%) winning 102 seats (-78)
KDU-ČSL and allies 9.87% (0.42%) winning 73 seats (+11)
TOP09 + STAN 6.63% (+6.63%) winning 44 seats (+44)
SPOZ 4.16% (+4.16%) winning 7 seats (+7)
Green Party and allies 2.83% (-0.32%) winning 10 seats (+10)
Pirate 2.19% (+2.19%) winning 0 seats (nc)
NEZ 1.68% (+1%) winning 5 seats (+5) winning 5 seats (+5)
SNK ED 1.02% (-0.24%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Regional parties and others 15.33% (+4.32%) winning 44 seats (+8)

In the first round of senatorial elections, no candidate was elected by the first round. 23 ČSSD candidates qualified for the runoff, as did 12 KSČM candidates, 10 ODS candidates, 2 KDU-ČSL candidates, 2 STAN (TOP09 allies) candidates, 1 Pirate, 1 Green and 3 others (2 indies, 1 Ostrava local party). In terms of first place showings, the ČSSD placed first in 11 of the 27 constituencies, the ODS placed first in 5, the KSČM in 4, the KDU-ČSL in two, the Greens in one, the Pirates in one and all three other candidates also placed first.

On these numbers, the ODS has already lost seven of the seats that it had won in 2006 (that year, it won 14 to the ČSSD’s 6) – which means that the party, at most, will hold only 18 seats in the Senate (down from 25) after this election. The KDU-ČSL will also hold fewer seats, it has failed to qualify for the runoffs in two seats they currently hold, meaning that, at most, they will hold four seats in the Senate (down from 6).

Updated with full results:

ČSSD winning 13 seats (+7) > 48 seats (+7)
ODS winning 4 seats (-10) > 15 seats (-10)
KDU-ČSL winning 2 seats (-2) > 4 seats (-2)
Independents winning 2 seats (+2) > 3 seats (+1)
STAN winning 2 seats (+1) > 2 seats (+1)
KSČM winning 1 seat (nc) > 2 seats (nc)
Green Party (SZ) winning 1 seat (+1) > 1 seat (+1)
Pirate winning 1 seat (+1) > 1 seat (+1)
Ostravak winning 1 seat (+1) > 1 seat (+1)
S.cz winning 0 seats > 2 seats (nc)
TOP09 winning 0 seats > 2 seats (nc)

The results are a major defeat for the governing parties. The 2008 regional elections, which had been held under similar political circumstances (a ODS government) were a landslide victory for the opposition ČSSD. This year, however, the ODS’ results were even worse, winning only 12.3% of the vote. Such a drubbing was not too surprising, the ODS had been expected to lose badly at the polls. The Prime Minister tried to downplay the results, noting that voters usually express discontent with the central government during regional elections. He has nonetheless pledged to continue deficit cuts, remaining set on bringing it down the EU’s 3% limit.

As results of various “midterm” elections in the Czech Republic (most notably the last few regional elections) show, these kind of midterm elections do indeed often produce rather bad results for the party in power. However, that explanation may only go so far. The ODS’ mauling (and that of the government in general, with 6.6% it is not like TOP09 did too great either) is not only midterm protest voting, it is also discontent with the austerity policies, the bad economic conditions in the country and the stench of corruption which permeates both the ODS and the ČSSD.

The ODS did top the poll in one region, Plzeň, but Nečas cannot even take solace in that result. In that region, the ODS list was headed by Jiří Pospíšil, a young former justice minister who was fired by Nečas in June 2012. Officially, he was removed from cabinet for opposing the austerity measures. In reality, Pospíšil’s attempts to fight corruption effectively likely rattled a few feathers.

The government is currently facing a backbench rebellion over its new tax plan which would increase the sales tax by 1% and raise taxes on high earners. With an uncertain parliamentary majority, some right-wing backbenchers are threatening to bring down the government on this matter of confidence as soon as next week (October 23). They would need three-fifths of the lower house to force snap elections, which the ČSSD are calling for. The election results will boost the standing of the rebels and put even more pressure on Nečas. The rebels had already received a major boost when President Václav Klaus criticized the tax pan.

The ODS would likely lose badly if a general election were held, but not as badly as in these elections. Turnout was very low in these elections, especially on the right. In a general election, turnout would be above 60% and the centre-right coalition would perform slightly better, but would still enter as the heavy underdog against the ČSSD (and no, being an underdog isn’t necessarily something to be happy about).

The ČSSD emerged as the largest party in these elections, but the party’s results are rather disastrous, especially after the landslide victory it had won in the last regional elections in 2008. Corruption scandals have significantly weakened the party’s standing in public opinion. The ČSSD still topped the poll in nine of the 13 regions, and the senate elections will likely allow them to expand their large (but fairly useless) majority in the upper house.

This means that, on the left and overall, the main winner of these elections are the Communists (KSČM). The KSČM is a controversial party in Czech politics, because it is one of the few (the only?) unreformed communist parties in eastern Europe to still enjoy significant popular support, mostly from a core of devoted activists and voters who turned out heavily in these regional elections. The KSČM has been shunned by the other parties, with the ČSSD expressly refusing to collaborate with them at the national level. This has meant that the KSČM has remained in opposition, vitam aeternam, being able to freely oppose any policies without being held responsible itself.

Much has been made of the KSČM’s result this year, and it is true that it did impressively well. However, it isn’t the party’s first spectacular result in midterm elections of this type. It has never won over 18% of the vote in general elections, but in the 2000 regional elections it won 21.2% and in the 2004 European elections it won 20.3%. The 2000 regionals were held two years after the 1998 elections, in which the ODS agreed to support a ČSSD minority cabinet in exchange for a portion of power. This agreement is remembered as the moment when the two major parties began “cooperating in unfair practices” (cite). In 2004, the ČSSD government was extremely unpopular. The KSČM’s successes in 2000, 2004 and again this year are not emblematic of a revolutionary fervour or a fundamental shift to the far-left, but rather the result of the KSČM raking up protest votes, dissatisfied at the economic situation, rampant corruption in both major parties and the rather thin policy differences between the ODS and ČSSD. With the economic crisis and major discontent at the traditional order of things (politically, but also economically), the KSČM’s vague message of egalitarianism and more jobs struck a chord with many voters.

The Communists have topped the poll in two regions, Karlovy Vary and Ústí nad Labem – both in northern Bohemia, an industrial and mining heartland which has been the KSČM’s main stronghold in the past. Some have expressed satisfaction at the prospect of the KSČM governing two regions, it will give them a chance to prove themselves and will force them to take up actual responsibilities.

The KSČM’s success has had its influence on the ČSSD, whose leader Bohuslav Sobotka has publicly said that he would be open to a ČSSD minority government backed by the KSČM. This is a major change in policy for the ČSSD at the national level. In the past, the virulently anti-communist ČSSD has been hostile to any national government even backed by the Communists (although there has been cooperation at a regional level).

The KDU-ČSL, a right-wing christian democratic party which was thrown out of the lower house in the 2010 elections, did surprisingly well. In coalition with local independents and other assorted local parties, the party did quite well, especially in its Moravian heartlands. It was likely an attractive option for right-wing voters. The party’s success could allow it to return to

As is the case with Czech regional and local elections, in some regions local and regional parties performed well – though in some cases even better than usual. In Liberec region, the Mayors for Liberec Region (SLK – it seems vaguely right of centre and sometimes allied with TOP09), topped the poll with 22% and 13 seats. In that same region, another local party – allied with the Greens it seems – “Change for Liberec” – won 16.9% and 10 seats. In Ústí nad Labem (North Bohemia), the vaguely regionalist Severočeši.cz (NorthBohemians.cz) – a party with two senators from 2010 – won 12% and 9 seats. Local parties also won seats in South Bohemia, Karlovy Vary (in this case, two local parties won seats) and in Hradec-Králové.

The second round of the senate elections will probably confirm the first round. These elections will have a major impact on the embattled Czech government, which could collapse as early as next week if the backbench ODS rebels are successful. Even if Nečas seeks to downplay these results as the product of cyclical midterm disappointment with incumbents, these elections will have severely weakened him and his government. A snap election is not yet a certainty, even if the cabinet collapses, as it requires a three-fifths majority in the lower house to call a snap election. However, the results of this election will increase the pressure on Nečas, run up the internal tension in the ODS and might lead the ODS’ partners to reconsider their participation- for example, TOP09’s leader Karel Schwarzenberg has said that the government’s economic measures should be reevaluated as to mitigate their social impact. All these factors mean that the government will probably not survive until 2014, and that an early election will come sooner than later. In these elections, the ODS risks a debacle, but the ČSSD is only in a marginally better position overall.

Updated October 27: In the second round of senatorial elections on October 19 and 20, the ČSSD increased its absolute majority in the Senate. With 48 seats, it now holds nearly three-fifths of the seats on its own. The ODS lost ten seats, leaving it with only 15 seats in the upper house. The two-round system once again worked against the KSČM, despite qualifying for runoffs in 12 constituencies, they won (rather, held) only a single seat (constituency 5 – Chomutov).

The most important result in these elections was probably turnout – or the lack thereof. Only 18.6% of voters turned up to the polls in the 27 constituencies up for grabs, down massively from 34.9% in the first round. Turnout was down across the board.

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Posted on October 19, 2012, in Czech Republic, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m surprised how well-informed is your analysis of Czech elections, I loved it

    Several notes:
    * the major reason why ODS and governement are unpopular isn’t austerity, but rather allegances of corruption, which have hurt ODS (since like 2008) and also TOP 09 and ČSSD recently
    * TOP 09 is nothing but personal machine of finance minister Miroslav Kalousek, it has only about 1000 members (against 25 000 of ODS and ČSSD and even more of KSČM and KDU-ČSL), it was originally splitoff of KDU-ČSL, but they “stole” voters almost only from ODS (the two parties share common secular, urban and affluent middle-class electorate)
    * The reason why KSČM is so strong in Karlovarský and Ústecký regions is not related to industry (it actually performs better in rural parts of these regions) but it’s because it was resettled only in 1946, prior to that, it was almost exclusively German area, see: http://bio.bwbs.de/UserFiles/Image/1936-1940/Sudetenland.jpg
    * It wasn’t as much defeat of “right”, as of “parliamentary right”, because minor right-wing parties and local groupings (mostly centre-right, except for South Bohemians 2012, ODS dissident list, which is to the right of ODS and won 14,57 %). ČSSD results are only mediocre (they stay between 20-25% since 2010) and KSČM usually performs better as turnout decreases (they have very disciplined, old electorate)
    * ODS was left only with its base of small businessmen across the country, it seems like the most affluent voters stayed home (see Prague suburbian districts, which had only mediocre turnout), but they can be expected to return back to ODS in more “high stakes” elections. On the other hand, ČSSD benefited from pro-incumbent vote, because they performed better in peaceful smalltown land, then in some socially depressed areas

    Otherwise your report was excellent, looking forward to reading new posts

    Sorry for my English, I’m Czech

    Vojtěch

  2. J.Paroubek (at least) allied with the communists, as far as I remember.

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