The Czech that didn’t bounce

October 17, 2010 § 2 Comments

One should never take anything for granted in politics. This blog earlier made the error of suggesting that the elections to the Czech Senate were not particularly important. The Senate is the Czech Republic’s second chamber, it has hardly any power, only a third of the senate is up for election, and it would take an earthquake for the ruling centre-Right coalition to lose its majority. The international press scarcely mentioned it, and even the Czech press (or the bits I put google translate to work on) didn’t seem that fussed.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

To recap: in late May of this year the Czech people voted and, after a few months of negotiations, a stable government was formed. It had a majority in both houses, with 118 seats  in the 200 seat lower house, and 49 seats in the 81 seat senate. The main party in the coalition was the centre-right liberal Civic Democrats, their junior partner the further right conservative TOP09, their main opponents the centre left Czech Social Democratic Party.

As elections to the Senate are conducted under first past the post (with a runoff) the parties tend to group together into caucuses for the purposes of contesting elections. In the Senate the Civic Democrat led caucus had 36 seats, the TOP09 led caucus 8, and 5 independents or smaller parties were allied to the ruling coalition. The Social Democrats had 29 seats with 3 allied independents or smaller parties.

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However, if you look at the seats which were to be contested (inside the boxes above), you could see how the Civic Democrats could lose their majority: 19 Civic Democrat caucus seats were up for election, 6 TOP09 caucus seats, none from the Social Democrats caucus and, of the two independents up for re-election, one sat on either side of the aisle.

Even so, one would expect some sort of bounce from the General Election just passed (this Government was only formed in late June – nearly two months after the UK government – and is only barely out of its first 100 days). Moreover it was thought the main threat came from TOP09. Indeed, in the local elections fought on the same day this was the case and the Civic Democrats lost their flagship leadership of Prague to TOP09. However, in the Senate elections something very different happened.

Firstly, no-one won any seats. Not a single candidate won more than 50% of the vote so every single seat goes to a runoff on Friday and Saturday. This is quite unusual. Secondly, the Civic Democrats did appallingly, and the Social Democrats superbly. The Social Democrats are leading in 22 of the 27 races, and the Civic Democrats have already been knocked out in 8 of the races.

Let us not automatically assume that this will lead to a Social Democrat Senate – the right is more fragmented in the Czech Republic than the left (notwithstanding a sizeable communist vote) and the Civic Democrats could well come back strongly in the second round. Overall the Social Democrats only beat the Civic Democrats in vote share by 1%: receiving 20% to their 19%.

That said, this was a tonking, and the second round election will now be fought against background headlines of “Civic Democrats receive tonking”. The Social Democratic caucus only needs to convert half of its leads to get an outright majority.

So what can the Senate do? Well not much, which is where we came in, but it can repeatedly embarrass the Government by delaying its programme. The Civic Democrats have a radical programme of cuts they want to push through, and it looks like a desire to make it difficult to make those cuts was the deciding factor in this election. The argument of the left is that the Czech Republic has one of the lowest debts in Central Europe – Czech debt is second only in value to German debt on European Sovereign Debt markets – and so Czechs are not as tolerant of deep cuts to public services as, for example, election results would suggest Latvians are.

Let us see what Saturday brings.

In other news the MQM are widely expected to hold onto their seat in the by election in Karachi, but the real news will be the severity of the violence surrounding the poll.

The MQM (the party traditionally associated with Pakistan’s Mohajir community  – the descendents of Urdu speaking refugees from central India) dominate Karachi politics but have limited reach outside of the major Sindhi cities of Karachi and Hyderabad. As such they struggle to assert themselves beyond the city limits in elections for the assembly of the province of Sindh. This by-election is for a seat in that assembly and was sparked by the August assassination of prominent MQM politician Raza Haider. The only party that had any chance of taking the seat from them was the ANP (Awami National Party – a party traditionally associated with the Pashtun community, of which there are many expatriates in Karachi), and they are boycotting the polls saying they cannot compete fairly.

Elections in Karachi are often violent affairs, as political divisions match ethnic and sectarian divisions. Up to 25 people have been reported dead already. Let us hope the number gets no higher.

Update: I’m afraid 28 are now confirmed dead in Karachi in a series of gunfire incidents between ANP and MQM supporters. It appears turnout was high and the MQM have easily held the seat.

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