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Electoral proposal raises more questions than answers

A proposal by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) under which the Czech Republic’s electoral law would be significantly altered has provoked emotional debates among politicians and analysts. Although the ODS proposal was unofficially endorsed by Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Chairman Milos Zeman during a meeting with ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus, some CSSD leaders were cautious about the proposal. Deputy Chairman Petra Buzkova publicly challenged Zeman over his endorsement of the proposal.

Under the proposal, the number of electoral districts would increase from the current eight to some thirty-five. While under the current law, some 25 deputies are elected to the parliament’s lower chamber, only five or six deputies would be elected from each of the new districts. This would result in reducing the influence of small parties in the parliament or in eliminating them altogether. Only those parties that would gain more than 10% of the popular vote could hope to have deputies in the parliament. Stronger parties would benefit the most. Under certain circumstances, a two-party system could develop.

Leaders of the small parliamentary parties have criticized not only the fact that the proposal is so ostensibly aimed against them but also the fact that the two large parties are willing to use their current Strength to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage. A close examination of the proposal raises other serious questions about the merits of the ODS proposal.

One reason for concern is the growing popularity of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM). The party has benefited from the deepening economic crisis in the country and the inability of the two large democratic parties to lead the country out of crisis. Recent opinion polls suggest that only 205 of Czechs would now vote for the ruling CSSD, a 12% drop since the elections in June 1998. The KSCM is now supported by some 16% of Czechs.

The ODS originally suggested that a simple majority system should be used in electing the lower chamber of the parliament. The CSSD, fearing a resounding defeat, rejected the proposal. Ideas to introduce a two-round majority system, that is used in electing the Senate, were discarded after both the CSSD and the ODS were soundly defeated by a coalition of four small parties in the Senate elections last November. A majority system reduces the influence of extremist parties, such as the KSCM. The version of the proportional system introduced by Klaus and Zeman could, under certain circumstances, increase the influence of the KSCM.

The Communists could become the second strongest, or even the strongest party in the parliament, should its preferences climb over 20% and the popularity of the CSSD should continue to diminish. Under the current electoral system. The democratic parliamentary parties could keep the Communists on the sidelines by forming a coalition. Under the new system, the Communists would be one of only two or three parties that would win seats in the parliament.

Klaus and Zeman may be miscalculating as to the effects of the proposed electoral system not only when it concerns the role of the KSCM. Should the new electoral system be adopted, smaller parties would be forced to form a pre-election coalition. Should the coalition of four small parties be renewed and repeat its success from the Senate elections in November, it could even emerge as the strongest political grouping in the parliament.

Should Klaus and Zeman succeed in creating a two-party system, their parties would be significantly transformed as a result. If a democratic society is forced, due to an electoral system, to express itself politically only through two large parties, those parties themselves become internally plural. They can no longer function as narrowly-defined ideological bastions but, rather, as broad coalitions of various interest groups of currents of opinions. Such a development would certainly pose of problem for the ODS, that has functioned more like a fan club of Vaclav Klaus than a real party.

Regardless of whether the proposal succeeds or not, it is disturbing that the two largest parties continue to strive for changing the electoral system in such a way that suits their needs. Their attempts to change the principal rules of the democratic game without other players indicate that the Czech Republic is still far from those Western standards to which its leaders subscribe.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 26. 5. 1999