Czech elections: Towards renewed deadlock?

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On 28 and 29 May, parliamentary elections will be held in the Czech Republic. Along with the conservatives, social democrats and communists, two new parties will almost certainly get to the lower house of parliament. Yet the elections will probably lead to renewed deadlock, experts predict. EURACTIV Czech Republic reports.

For the first time in four years, general elections will take place in the Czech Republic this week. For the first time since the Czech Republic was established in 1993, two new political parties will almost certainly win seats in the lower house of parliament, known as the Chamber of Deputies: the centre-right Public Affairs (VV: V?ci ve?ejné) party and conservative group TOP 09 (Tradice Odpov?dnost Prosperita 09).

According to the latest opinion poll published ahead of the elections, VV will win 12.6% of the vote and TOP 09 10.9%. The minimum share of votes required to reach parliament is 5%. It is also possible that the Christian democrats (KDU-?SL) might just manage to exceed the threshold.

Political scientists believe that the new parties could complicate the post-election situation even more because their 'coalition potential' is fairly limited. TOP 09 has already announced that it will not form a government with the social democrats, while VV presents itself as a party campaigning against ''political dinosaurs'' – in other words, parties that have been in parliament for a long time.

Therefore, the social democrats (?SSD) – who are in the lead, according to polls – will probably have difficulty forming a 'centre-left' coalition, which would leave the party with two options: form a broad coalition with the conservative ODS or a minority government supported by the communists, KS?M. Yet no Czech political party is willing to form a normal government with KS?M, which is still considered extremist.

If ?SSD fails, ODS – which will probably come second – could try to form a 'centre-right' government with TOP 09, VV and perhaps KDU-?SL. However, experts say nobody knows what to expect from VV. Most have simply said: ''Anything is possible in these elections.''

The chances of deadlock appear high. Political scientists have pointed out that during the last elections in 2006, there was a 100-100 tie between the right and the left, which led to eight months of negotiations. The resulting centre-right government was very weak and collapsed in the middle of the Czech EU Presidency in spring 2009.

Experts blame the Czech electoral system, which does not allow strong right or left coalitions to form. MPs are elected according to the principles of proportional representation, but there are many exceptions. In 2006, all the political parties said that the system must be changed – for example, the winner should get a greater number of seats – but no agreement has since been reached.

Debt a key election issue

Unsurprisingly, domestic issues such as unemployment, social benefits, corruption and effective governance dominated the election campaign. However, Europe did play a role due to the Greek and eurozone crises – issues that have fuelled debate on the subject of debt.

In 2009, the Czech public finance deficit reached 5.9% of GDP – almost double the maximum 3% limit set by the EU's Maastricht criteria. The European Commission launched an excessive deficit procedure against the Czech Republic on 2 December 2009. ''In order to bring the deficit below 3% of GDP in 2013, an average annual fiscal effort of 1% of GDP over the period 2010-2013 has to be ensured,'' the Commission stated.

Czech Finance Minister Eduard Janota expects that savings could bring the deficit under 3% of GDP by 2013, in line with the Commission's recommendation. He suggests a 5.3% deficit for this year, 4.8% for 2011 and 4.2% for 2012. All major parties endorse the plan. Moreover, right-wing parties are aiming for a balanced budget in 2015 (TOP 09) or 2017 (ODS).

Euro in 2016?

Bearing in mind the huge budget deficit, discussions about entering the euro zone were not at the forefront of the election campaign. Janota believes that eurozone entry will only be possible in 2016 at the earliest.

Both the social democrat ?SSD and the conservative ODS have declared that the Czech Republic should be ready to enter the euro zone by no later than 2016. However, while ODS states that the country will be ''technically ready in 2015'' but must weigh up the ''pros and cons,'' ?SSD is unambiguously in favour of joining in 2015 or 2016 if ''economic development allows us to do so''.

Plans for eurozone accession among other parties – which are smaller but necessary to form coalition governments – are rather vague. Most of them mention the need to access the eurozone without giving further details, while there is no reference to the euro in the programme of the communist KS?M.

'Fragile' unity on energy and agriculture

As for the EU budget and common energy policy, the parties have a lot in common. For example, all of them mention that it is necessary to 'balance' the positions of farmers in 'old' and 'new' member states. But there is still a lot of diversity between the left and the right. While Lubomír Zaorálek (?SSD) speaks about ''social cohesion'' as a future budget priority, his rival Alexandr Vondra (ODS) wants EU money to go into ''enhancing EU competitiveness in a global world''.

Representatives of VV and TOP 09 more or less share the view of the ODS on most European issues, but there is a huge divergences on the left – between ?SSD and KS?M. While ?SSD almost presents itself as EU-federalist, KS?M barely mentions the EU in its programme.

For instance, Lubomír Zaorálek admitted that his party would support the establishment of a 'European Monetary Fund', which is somewhat a taboo among other parties. Future harmonisation of tax rates and the creation of a European finance ministry are similar: only ?SSD would consider transferring some competencies to Brussels – the others would be opposed.

On the other hand, all parties support a strong EU energy policy capable of preventing a crisis similar to that which took place in January 2009. However, some argue that the crisis was a ''lost opportunity''. According to Jana Hybášková (KDU-?SL), former prime minister Mirek Topolánek (ODS) had the chance to put energy policy on the European agenda when the crisis occurred during the Czech EU Presidency but he failed.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Since then, only three Czech political parties have held seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament:

The centre-right, conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS: Ob?anská demokratická strana), the centre-left Czech Social Democratic Party (?SSD: ?eská strana sociáln? demokratická) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KS?M: Komunistická strana ?ech a Moravy).

In this week’s elections, two new parties – the centre-right Public Affairs (VV: V?ci ve?ejné) and the conservative Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09 (TOP 09: Tradice Odpov?dnost Prosperita 09) – should gain seats in the parliament.

In the European Parliament elections of June 2009, 22 MEPs from the Czech Republic were voted in. ODS won 9 seats, ?SSD won 7, KS?M won 4 and the Christian democrat KDU–?SL won 2. However, turnout was one of the lowest in the EU-27, at just 28%.

In the middle of the Czech EU Presidency last year, the country’s ODS government of Mirek Topolánek lost a confidence vote in parliament and collapsed (EURACTIV 25/03/09). Jan Fischer, head of the statistical office, became prime minister in a caretaker cabinet.

  • 28-29 May: Czech parliamentary elections.

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