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Is cooperation between ODS and CSSD in Jeopardy?

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has rejected a Social Democratic Party (CSSD) proposal for changes in the electoral system. The ODS said the CSSD did not go far enough in meeting suggestions for electoral changes that the ODS had made public several weeks ago.

Some ODS leaders have hinted that unless the CSSD looks for a compromise with the ODS the so-called opposition agreement that the two parties signed after last year’s elections could be in jeopardy. Under the agreement, the ODS allowed the CSSD to form a minority government in exchange for receiving important state posts.

The conflict between the ODS and the CSSD over the extent of electoral changes could be serious. The ODS wants such changes that will either eliminate small parties or significantly reduce their influence. At the same time, it would like a new electoral system to make possible a one-party majority government.

Both parties agree that the number of electoral districts should increase from the current eight to a maximum of thirty-six. Such a change, in itself, would increase parliamentary representation of big parties and reduce the influence of small parties, as only five or six deputies would be elected in each small district.

The CSSD, however, proposes that electoral results are counted with the help of the so-called d’Hondt system while the ODS prefers the Imperiali system. While d’Hondt system is used in many European countries, the Imperiali system is used rarely anywhere in the world. It would further skew the electoral arithmetic in favor of big parties, giving them in effect a bonus.

Had there been 36 electoral districts, and had the d’Hondt system been used, during the elections in 1998, in which the CSSD won 32 percent of the popular vote (which translated into 64 seats), the CSSD would have won some 90 seats. Had the Imperiali system been used the CSSD would have won a comfortable majority of seats in the parliament’s lower chamber.

It is easy to see why the ODS insists on the Imperiali system. Should the elections be held now, the ODS could win as much as 30 percent of the popular vote, becoming the strongest party. But under the d’Hondt system it would not win a majority of seats. ODS leaders have repeatedly said that in light of their experience with coalition partners between 1992 and 1997, they would prefer a one-party government. Conversely, other parties are not eager to form a coalition with the ODS as long as Vaclav Klaus is its chairman.

The ODS originally proposed a simple majority system that is used, for example, in Great Britain. The CSSD is afraid of such a system. Not only does the CSSD not have enough strong personalities but it will probably pay a price in the next election for governing the country during an economic crisis.

The CSSD also insists that a new electoral law would go into effect in January 2002. The ODS sees such a demand as a form of extortion. Some ODS leaders say the CSSD is in fact trying to buy time to govern until the next regular elections.

Despite disagreements, the two parties will work hard to find a compromise. The CSSD does not want to give up governing, while the ODS finds the position of a party that keeps an unsuccessful government alive, while acting as an opposition party, rather comfortable.

On the other hand, CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman plays a high-risk game in assuming that the economy will start recovering, which should help the CSSD. Some younger party leaders are increasingly worried about the prospects of an electoral failure that could exacerbated by changes in the electoral system. Negotiations with the ODS about such changes will, therefore, be difficult. Should the ODS be uncompromising, the CSSD may in the end prefer to end the opposition agreement and search for a majority government rather than live under the threat of a crushing defeat in the next election.

Reuters - 1. 7. 1999