Czech Republic

February 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

czech republicWho lives there?: About ten million people. Almost all are ethnically Czech and speak Czech. It is one of the least religious places on the planet – 60% profess no religion, 25% Catholicism and 5% various other types of Christianity.

How does the system work? (the theory): The Czech Republic has a semi-Presidential system similar to much of central Europe whereby the President is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government. However the Czech President is more powerful than, for example, the Hungarian President and is not merely a figurehead. For one thing the President  has a Parliamentary veto and sole authority over some areas. Secondly the President and Prime Minister both need to be in agreement in order to proceed in certain matters – for example in all things relating to foreign affairs.

Both President and Prime Minister are elected indirectly by Parliament. The Prime Minister is a classic Eurpoean Prime Minister: they are the leader of a party that can command a functional majority in the lower house: they have to be ratified by the lower house,  if they lose their majority they must resign and, if no-one else can command a majority fresh elections must be held. The President is elected by Parliament more formally: for a five year term which they then serve come what may. This election is held in a number of rounds and, unusually for an indirect election, the ballot is secret.

To be victorious in the first round it is required that a Presidential candidate win an absolute majority of votes in both the houses. In other words they need 41 of the 80 Senators  and 101 of the 200 Deputies to vote for them to win in round one. If no candidate wins outright in round one we proceed to round two.

Round two is almost identical (and it is identical if attendance amongst the parliamentarians is 100%) but the rules are slightly less tight in that it is only an absolute majority of those present in each of the two houses that is required. So if there are a number of senators or deputies missing for whatever reason when the vote is called then the number of votes you need to win is very slightly less. To win on the second round you still however need to win by an absolute majority in both houses.

If no candidate is successful in round two we move to round three. Round three has the least demanding criteria. To win in round three you still need 50% of the vote of those present – but in round 3 no distinction is made between Senators and Deputies. In other words you don’t need to necessarily win over 50% in both houses, provided you have over 50% overall.

If there is no winner in round three then a round four is held. The rules in round four are the same as the rules for round one; in other words the rules become tighter again. If this still does not provide a winner then a round five is held with rules identical to the rules of round two. And so forth. This can in theory go on indefinitely as it is impossible to call fresh elections without a president in place.

So representative democracy takes place solely through elections to Parliament. Fortunately these are much more straightforward. The lower house has most of the power; it is called the Chamber of Deputies. 200 seats are elected by D’hondt PR for multi member constituencies of varying sizes of between 5 and 25 members per constituency. There is a 5% constituency threshold for a party to achieve representation whilst parties in coalition running under a joint ticket – or coalitions of independents – must reach a slightly higher 8% threshold. Terms are for a maximum of four years and elections are called either by mutual agreement of the PM and the President or if the PM loses their majority – in which case the President can call elections regardless of the PM’s wishes.

The upper house (Senate) is fairly toothless but can prove an annoyance to a government that doesn’t control it. It has 81 members elected by two round FPTP in 81 geographical constituencies. Terms are for six years and are fixed: one third ( 27 ) of  the seats are contested every two years.

The Czech Republic is divided into 13 regions and one capital city. They each elect a regional legislative by FPTP which then in turn elects the regional President. Below this level are the municipalities which likewise consist of directly elected councillors who in turn elect a mayor.

The general consensus is that the Czech Republic’s system of local government has an enormous potential for devolved power, but that local administrations have not yet taken full advantage of the powers available to them. There used to be an interim tier – the districts – in between the regions and the municipalities. This was controversially abolished in 2000 as they were considered  redundant but there is a feeling that this was a mistake: the districts were more real in the minds of ordinary people than either the regions or the municipalities are and possibly as a result the new system hasn’t really taken off.

13 of the larger towns are run by “statutory municipalities”. These are identical to other municipalities except that their powers – particularly their economic powers – have been enhanced by law to facilitate their rapid development.

How does the system work? (the practice): Whilst the Czech Republic is a model democracy with freedom of expression and all the rest of it, there are a few problems with the system. Firstly the election of the President is cumbersome and seems to be getting more difficult every time it is tried – this despite the fact that there has not yet been any strong competition for the role and there are almost always only two candidates. One specific problem is the Communist party’s habit of abstaining in person: by showing up they increase the number of votes one needs to win in rounds two or three, and then by not voting they decrease the chances of the number being reached. At the last presidential election it took six attempts to finally re-elect the president.

Then there is a strong and growing body of opinion that the upper house – the senate – is fairly pointless and should be done away with. Turnout in senate elections tends to be around the 20% to 30% mark. Finally there is the problem that with a President, a Prime Minister, and two houses there is considerable capacity for the system to get gridlocked. This is exacerbated by having overlapping terms, by having PR, and by the fact that the Communist party always win around 15% of the seats but will not work with any other party – and are likewise shunned by all.

And then occasionally this happens:

The person getting slapped is Dr David Rath, the former minister for health and one of the major forces in the left-wing CSSD – he is generally regarded as a bit of a slimeball. The man who slapped him is Dr Miroslav Macek, one of the most senior spin doctors in the right-wing ODS and a former deputy PM.

About three weeks before this event (I believe it is a symposium on dentistry) Rath suggested that Macek had only married his wife for her considerable wealth. Macek responded by stating in a press release that he would “handle it as men do”.

Following the fight Macek was asked to pay Rath the equivalent of £4000 and say that he regretted his actions. He paid the money but pointed out that a court cannot order someone to regret something. Meanwhile a public whip around collected nearly double the amount, prompting various campaigns over social media along the lines of “we can afford to do it again” – the idea being that one randomly selected lucky punter would get to go and slap Rath. This hasn’t happened yet.

How did we get here?: The Czech Republic has a lot of history, but only the recent stuff is directly relevant to the modern political situation so I’m going to leave a lot out. As the Kingdom of Bohemia, the land was an independent kingdom for parts of its history and an integral part of the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empire for other parts. After WW1 it gained independence as Czechoslovakia. There were various ethnic tensions with the Slovak and German minorities, and the Nazis were able to exploit them and annex the nation in 1938 – one of the root causes of WW2.

In 1945, the Nazis having been defeated, Czechoslovakia was independent once again and rapidly became a communist country. One of the first acts of the new government was to expel all ethnic Germans – nearly 3 million people – from the country. However, this aside, the Czech government implemented a far more liberal and less severe form of Communism than much of the Soviet Union. This culminated in the “Czech Spring” of 1968 in which the radical reformer Alexander Dubček took power and promised sweeping democratic, liberal, and economic reforms. The Soviet Union did not take kindly to this.

Prague spring 1968 Czech

Over 200,000 Soviet troops invaded in order to “protect Communism”. Dubček and various other leaders were abducted and taken to Moscow where, under heavy coercion, they were made to rescind their reforms. But the strength of feeling in Czechoslovakia took the Soviets by surprise and it took a couple of years of heavy handed policing by the Soviet Army, many protests, and many deaths, before the situation was “normalised”. A series of hard-line communists were placed in charge of the country, and Dubček was given a  job as a minor forestry official. Even then the anti-totalitarian flame continued to flicker through various dissidents and the “Charter 77” movement. For a while in the western media it was unusual to see the word “dissident” except preceded by the word “Czech”.

The Communist Government fell in 1989 in response to the “velvet revolution” – a week of almost entirely peaceful protests. The poet, philosopher, and perennial dissident Václav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist President. Multi party elections were introduced and, in the new democratic climate, the Slovakan campaign for autonomy gained strength. This led in 1993 to the “velvet divorce” whereby the country split in two halves – the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Havel disapproved of the divorce and resigned as President in protest. However he was persuaded back and became the Czech Republic’s first President.

The divorce also led to one of the world’s pettiest diplomatic disputes. As new entities both the Czech Republic and Slovakia needed to be officially recognised by all the world’s nations. Seeing the opportunity to redress a past grievance, Liechtenstein refused to do so until the Czech and Slovak government returned 1,800 square miles to the Prince of Liechtenstein which, they claimed, had been stolen in 1946 (the Czech government in exile had ordered it seized during World War two as the property of Nazi sympathisers and the post war government had acted on the orders – in terms of international law its a minefield for all sorts of reasons). Only in late 2009 did Liechtenstein come to terms with the fact that nobody cared and finally recognised the existence of the two new nations.

The Czech Republic joined Nato in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Who’s in charge?: The Czech Republic has only ever had two presidents and both were called Václav. Havel served from 1993 to 2003 and Klaus has served ever since. Whilst Havel was a non-partisan centrist, Klaus is firmly on the centre-right and was a major figure, a Prime Minister, and a constant opponent of Havel throughout the 1990s.

Two parties have traditionally dominated Czech politics: Klaus’ centre-right ODS and the centre-left CSSD. In addition the communist KSCM traditionally get around 15% of the vote and the proportional representation system means that a number of smaller parties also get representation – with the exception of the Communists, they tend to act as coalition partners to one of the big two.

Unusually, in the Czech Republic the right is more fragmented than the left. On the left in addition to the CSSD and the Communists there are the (very small) Greens. On the right, in addition to the ODS, there is the socially liberal and pro-direct democracy, but economically conservative VV, and then there is the explicitly Catholic centre-right Christian Democrats.

But traditional political norms were shaken up by the formation of a brand new political party in 2009 – TOP09. Technically a splinter from the Christian Democrats (although they have no remaining links) and very much the creation of the hugely popular Karel Schwarzenberg (or to give him his proper title as a member of the Bohemian aristocracy: His Serene Highness The Prince of Schwarzenberg, Count of Sulz, Princely Landgrave in Klettgau, and Duke of Krumlov: Karel Schwarzenberg) they roared into life thanks to their distinctive brand of right-wing populism and immigrant bashing. Some people think they are a bit fascist, although the general consensus is that they are not as far right as some other anti immigrant European parties (for example in the European Parliament they sit with the EPP, not any of the further right groupings).

At the June 2010 elections they were incredibly successful, moving from no seats to 41 in one fell swoop. Their support mostly came at the expense of the ODS – who took an absolute pasting – but almost all the other parties took a battering too. Their mopping up of protest votes meant that the Christian Democrats and the Greens lost all their representation. By making the argument about immigration they also benefited the VV, who had the audacity to campaign on a pro-immigration platform. In so doing, their leader Radek John became the only politician to rival Schwarzenberg in popularity, and they achieved representation for the first time – winning 24 seats.

In total the CSSD won 56 seats, the OSD 53, TOP09 41, KSCM (Communists) 26 and VV 24. The OSD formed a coalition government with TOP09 and VV. Schwarzenberg became Foreign Minister, John became Minister for the Interior, and the OSD’s Petr Nečas became PM. The immigration issue, despite having dominated the campaign, was parked and they set about implementing  a centre right economic policy around which they could all agree.

Czech parliament party seats

Unfortunately for the Government, that centre-right economic policy was incredibly unpopular with voters. I earlier wrote about the November 2010 senate elections but to recap: the seats that were up for election were – by coincidence – almost all seats controlled by the governing parties; and not a single CSSD seat was up for election. This led to the possibility that the CSSD could not only deprive the government of their upper house majority but even win a outright majority of their own. However to do so they would need to win more than half of the ODS seats which were up – this wasn’t thought very likely as it would have been a big ask at the best of times, and none of the seats up were particularly good for the CSSD.

But that’s pretty much exactly what happened. In an absolute pasting for the government and the centre right in general the CSSD managed to win 12 of the 27 seats up (up from 0 in the cohort remember) and the ODS managed to lose 11 (down from 20 to 9 in the cohort). In the local elections on the same day the ODS also lost control of their flagship administration in Prague for the first time in the new republic’s history. They lost it to TOP09, which was for them the only highlight of an almost equally bleak night: they lost 4 of their 6 seats up (they had previously created a group of 9 – now 5 –  in the senate through defections and allied independents).

In total then the senate contained: 41 CSSD Senators, 25 ODS, 5 TOP09, 5 Christian Democrats, 2 North Bohemian regionalists, 2 Communists, and 1 healthcare minded independent.

czech senate party seats

What does it look like?: It’s mostly lush rolling hills. None of the mountains go that high but, by virtue of being in the dead centre of Europe, it acts as the watershed point between three different seas: North, Baltic, and Black.

Czech landscape

What are the issues?: With Czech parties offering variety on both social and economic axes, choosing how to vote is oftens a trade off between social and economic issues. For a while it seemed that the Czech Republic was obsessed with immigration, but at the moment economic issues are very much in the fore. The government has implemented a tight austerity budget and this is not popular at all

A good source of impartial information is: The Prague Post is the main English language newspaper, and in general the press is very good and there are a number of political blogs, of which this seems to be the most frequently updated.

For an insight into the fascinating world of Czech Football (and for half man half biscuit fans) I strongly recommend Hezky – and not just because it’s written by a mate of mine.

A good book is: The Czech Republic is over represented in the ranks of great authors – there are a lot of good Czech books (boom boom). Kafka was a bit early to have much to say on the modern political scene but Milan Kundera wrote about the Prague Spring in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Better still in my estimation is Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Stoppard (born Tomáš Straussler) was a Czech dissident himself and Rock and Roll is a brilliant play: dealing with modern political Czech history, Pink Floyd, the left in the UK, love, cancer, Eurocommunism, charter 77, the fall and rise of Havel, the Prague Spring, the Velvet revolution, just what Syd Barret is up to these days, and a history of the late 21st century in rock – all in the course of a laugh out loud funny and deeply moving story with real characters and a plot that makes sense.

As for something that goes right up to the present day, everyone is waiting, and in some cases dreading, the publication of Petra Paroubková’s “tell all” memoir. She is the wife of the former leader of the CSSD: Jiří Paroubek, a massive and controversial figure on the Czech political scene who played a major role in the last two election campaigns. In the meantime as far as I can tell there’s a bit of a gap in the market although there is The Czech Republic and the European Union and coming soon there will be Czech Elites and General Public: Leadership, Cohesion, and Democracy – both of which are sure to get pulses racing.

The Czech politicians themselves are quite good wordsmiths. Obviously Havel is a renowned poet and playwright but he has also written at length on politics and civil society. Radek John also rose to fame and political office through his literary work – in his case journalism, investigative reporting, and the novel Memento. Memento is the Czech trainspotting, only with more factual reportage and less Embra. It was the first work of fiction (or non fiction for that matter) to tackle drug addiction in the Czech Republic (it having being a taboo subject under communist rule) and as such created a huge stir. Its supposed to be quite good.

The next elections are: elections for the lower have to be called before June in 2014 but may be called sooner if the coalition doesn’t last. Senate elections will next be held in November 2012. These are important as, whist the balance of power is unlikely to change (the CSSD might lose having a majority in their own right but the government cannot win their majority back – even if they won every single seats up the opposition would still control the senate 41-40) it will be that Senate that elects the President. The seats up are: 14 OSD, 6 CSSD, 3 TOP09 and 3 Christian Democrats.

There will be indirect elections for President in 2013. People are already nervous about this as the fact that 1) Klaus is not eligible to stand again meaning that there are not yet any obvious candidates, 2) it is likely to be this highly fragmented lower house and, 3) a not substantially different Senate (ie one which is dominated by parties which oppose those that dominate the lower house) that elects the President, mean that the potential for absolute gridlock is very very high.

For one thing it is a mathematical impossibility that either the government or the opposition will have a majority in both houses, making it hard to see how anyone could win on rounds one or two. For another the overall figures in 2013 (government between 133 and 160 total parliamentarians, currently 150; opposition between 124 and 151, currently 131) point to a narrow government win in round three.

But this is provided that a) the government lose fewer than 9 of its 17 seats up in 2012, which on current form you wouldn’t put money on and b) all (save maybe one or two rebels -they can’t afford any more) the members of all three government parties (two of which hate each other) can unify around a candidate. If one of those criteria isn’t filled then there’s a good chance of getting an opposition president – but that requires the CSSD, Communists and Christian Democrats to unify round a candidate, which is an even bigger ask. Like I say  the most likely result is gridlock.

For completion the likely total parliamentary strengths in 2013 are: CSSD between 91 and 118, currently 97; Communists between 28 and 55, currently 28; Christian Democrats between 2 and 29, currently 5; others between 3 and 30, currently 3; OSD between 64 and 91, currently 78:  TOP09 between 45 and 72, currently 48; and VV between 24 and 51, currently 24.

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§ 2 Responses to Czech Republic

  • glhermine says:

    random comments:

    Th KSČM is one of the remaining hardline Stalinist parties still kicking, along with the KKE and the PCP. So, yeah, they’re still shunned and there’s always a lingering fear of them being banned for advocating revolution and stuff.

    The ODS is notably Eurosceptic, with Vaclav Klaus being the main leader of the party’s batshit insane wing and the governing wing being more pragmatic. Yet, their euroscepticism places them at odds with most mainstream liberal-conservative parties in mainland Europe.

    I don’t know about TOP09 hating browns, but I know they’re pro-European which differentiates them from the ODS.

    The Czech Greens are a right-wing party, one of the rare European ecocapitalist parties. They were in the Topolanek ODS-KDUCSL-Green government of 2006-2008.

  • Really interesting about the Greens, so the Czech right really is fragmented.

    KKE as in Greece and PCP as in Portugal?

    I didn’t mean to suggest that TOP09 hate browns but I heard that they emphasized immigration a lot in ’10. Their manifesto also explicitly calls for a “conservative country based on the traditions of European Christian-Jewish culture” – which isn’t exactly racist but will set some alarm bells ringing. However I’ve read their manifesto now and whilst it has a lot of dog whistles in there, I’m willing to admit that maybe I got it slightly wrong – they certainly don’t like immigration but it seems to me they emphasized free market economics more. Maybe their campaign material was different.

    I think its significant that they sit with the EPP and not any of the Nat groupings.

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