Czech Senate 2010

The first round of election for a third of the Czech Senate as well as key local elections were held in the Czech Republic on October 15 and 16. The Senate, which is made up of 81 members elected for six-year terms, is renewed every two years in thirds. The series of seats up this year were elected back in 2004, these seats being constituencies 1, 4, 7, 10, 13 and so on till 79. Senators are elected in a traditional two-round French-like system, with 50% needed to win by the first round. Local elections, in which around 62,000 local councillors were up for reelection, were held throughout the country with the biggest contest in the capital, Prague, where both the city’s mayor and district mayors were up for grabs.

The Senate has little power, it can only delay a bill from the lower house and this veto can be easily overridden with a mere simple majority in the lower house. As a result, turnout in Senate elections has usually been quite low, for example it reached 39.5% in the 2008 first round and was as low as 29% in 2004 (when these seats were last up). It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Senate elections tend to feature blow-outs, for example in 2008 the ČSSD won 23 of the 27 seats up (at a time when the ODS government was unpopular) while in 2004 the ČSSD won none of the seats up (in the Euro elections the same day, the ČSSD, then in power, came fifth overall).

The Czech Republic voted in general elections in May and its government is only four months old. In May, both traditional parties, the centre-right ODS and the centre-left ČSSD did especially poorly, to the benefit, largely, of two new right-wing parties, TOP 09 (which is more pro-European than the ODS) and VV (Public Affairs, a populist thing). The Greens and KDU-ČSL were wiped out, though the old Communists held their ground remarkably well. A coalition government led by the ODS’ Petr Nečas was formed by the ODS, TOP 09 and VV on a platform which includes major cuts to spending and public sector wages in an attempt to bring down the country’s budget deficit to the EU limit of 3% instead of the current 5.8%. One might think that the government would still be in its honeymoon a mere four months, but governments in bad economic times often have extremely short honeymoons as the economic circumstances force them into immediate and oftentimes unpopular actions. Voters tend to like calls for a healthy budget, low deficits and strong finances in election times but they often don’t like the fine-print revealed afterwards which says that their wages and social programs will have to suffer a bit in return.

While the government isn’t yet in the abyss, the poll ratings of all three governing parties have slid somewhat and the aura of ‘change’ and ‘newness’ which surrounded VV and TOP 09 in May have been tarnished a bit. Turnout reached a rather healthy 44.59% in the Senate election, a result perhaps of the local elections held on the same day. No one won by the first round, which is somewhat unusual, but not at all surprising considering the division of the votes these days. In fact, no candidate even broke 40% of the vote and most won under 35% of the votes in their constituencies. After the first round, the ODS leads in 11 seats, the ČSSD leads in 10, TOP 09 and KDU-ČSL are ahead in two seats each while two smaller parties (S.cz and NEZ) lead in one seat each. In

According to my calculations, in the seats not up this year, the ODS (and independent ODS types) has 17, ČSSD (and independent ČSSD types) has 29, the KDU-ČSL have 3, the KSČM (Communists) have 2, TOP 09 has 1, a small liberal party (SOS has) 1, and another seat is held by a random independent. I don’t know how much weight we should put in it, but Czech news website iDNES says that if the results of the first round were repeated in the runoff, the new Senate would be as follows:

ČSSD 40 seats (+11)
ODS 28 seats (-7)
KDU-ČSL 4 (-1)
TOP 09 3 (-3)
KSČM 2 (-1)
S.cz 1 (+1)
NEZ 1 (nc)
SOS 1 (nc)
Independent-NSK 1 (nc)

Of course, there’s still the runoff to go and given the further dispersion of right-wing votes than those of the left, it is possible that the right will do better in the runoff than in the first round. But, turnout in the runoff is usually even lower than in the first round and there are no local elections then to motivate turnout. That means that those who will probably vote in the runoff will probably be more likely to be opponents of the government than supporters of the government, especially if the latter suffer a morale drop from media headlines declaring the first round a quasi-rout for the right.

Already, in nine seats held by ODS incumbents, the ČSSD is ahead by the first round and in three of those, the ODS is already out by the first round. The ČSSD also has a shot in districts 58 and 70, held by KDU-ČSL and NEZ respectively. Overall, the ČSSD has 22 candidates in runoffs and ten of those are leading by the first round. The ODS has 19 candidates and 11 of them are ahead already. TOP 09 has five candidates in runoffs and two of them are ahead (both incumbents, in Karlovy Vary and Prague 10). One TOP 09 incumbent, a former Christian democrat, was defeated by the first round in the East Bohemian district of Ústí nad Orlicí (Pardubice region). TOP 09, overall, did relatively poorly and did not break through much in the Prague region, where one might have expected some big gains for the party there, coming from the ODS. The KDU-ČSL has three candidates, two of whom are leading. It held its ground quite well in its traditional Moravian heartland, which shows to some extent that the party isn’t dead despite it’s historic drubbing in May. VV is in the runoff in one place, in district 73 (Frýdek-Místek) in Moravia, where it is narrowly trailing the ČSSD as a result of the first round.

The ČSSD’s ‘victory’ isn’t as spectacular as some might make it out to be, given that it’s overall raw score remains quite paltry (low 20s or something) and that it merely gained back ground it shouldn’t have lost in its Moravian and east Bohemian bases. These seats were last up in 2004, and 2004 most certainly wasn’t a normal year. In fact, it was one of the most abnormal years in Czech elections and it was obvious that this year would be a ‘correction’ to the anomaly of 2004. Furthermore, one should remember that, similarly to the French PS, the ČSSD is very good at winning off-year local-level or low-interest elections but doesn’t seem to be able to do as spectacularly in the elections that actually matter. Lest we forget, the ČSSD’s former leader, Jiří Paroubek, was incompetent and it currently does not seem to have gotten itself a leader ready to inspire voters, though interim leader Bohuslav Sobotka doesn’t seem all that bad.

In local elections, the ČSSD has gained back some ground but didn’t do spectacularly overall. Associations of local parties and independents still hold nearly half of the seats, 30597 overall though these independents won only 12% of the votes. ČSSD won 19.7% of the votes cast, ODS got 18.8%, KSČM won 9.6%, TOP 09 won 9.5%, KDU-ČSL took 5.5% and VV took only 2.9% and did not break through anywhere.

Prague, Europe’s fifth wealthiest city, has been a stronghold of the ODS, which has held it since the first local elections in 1994. However, the emergence of TOP 09 as a centre-right pro-European type party has challenged ODS somewhat, and TOP 09 won the city in May. It was a big target for the party this year, and it seems to be one of the party’s few bright spots. It won 30.3% of the vote and 26 seats against 21.1% and 20 seats for ODS. ČSSD won 17.9% and 14 seats, up two while the Communists lost 3 seats and won 6.8% and 3 seats. A coalition between the Greens and SNK-ED, which held 10 seats in 2006, collapsed entirely and won a mere 5.9%. It is certainly a blow to the ODS, but it isn’t one which should come out of the blue entirely. Former central bank governor Zdenek Tuma is the favourite to become Mayor.

The Senate runoffs will tell us more about the results, but it is not totally crazy to think that if TOP 09 and VV do badly again in the runoffs they could reconsider their participation in the cabinet. Mid-term cabinet collapses are not unusual in the Czech Republic, especially if their junior partners feel that they made the wrong decision in joining the cabinet. The government could also consider shifts in its policy, such as dropping budget cuts in favour of tax hikes as a method to bridge the deficit. If the results of the first round are confirmed, this first test for the Czech government could prove interesting as a point of comparison to other European countries which recently elected governments committed to some tough budget cuts (UK, Slovakia, Netherlands especially) where their governments may or may not be doing so well in a few months time.

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Posted on October 17, 2010, in Czech Republic, Regional and local elections. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The FT actually said that CSSD were ahead in 22 of the races. I think this is a misinterpretation as I’v heard elsewhere that the CSSD are only in 22 of the races – which sounds more likely.

    I’ve also written about this:
    http://whoruleswhere.com/2010/10/17/the-czech-that-didnt-bounce/

    but as I dealt with the elections in terms of caucus blocks instead of party blocks my analysis is not quite as full.

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