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Senate race reveals weaknesses of political parties

The electoral contest in central Prague for a Senate seat that became vacant in the summer following the death of Senator Vaclav Benda has again shown that the Czech political system, as it has developed after 1989, finds itself in the midst of a deep crisis. That system has so far been based on strong political parties that have controlled every aspect of the Czech Republic's political life. In the Senate race, however, major political parties have been unable to come up with candidates who would openly run on their tickets. Instead, most candidates have gone into great lengths to emphasize their independence.

Such a development is not necessarily bad. The parliament's upper chamber was conceived as an institution that should not be a carbon copy of the lower chamber. The majority electoral system used in electing Senators was to ensure that Senators are more independent of political parties than deputies. However, in its first three years of existence, the Senate has displayed the same partisanship as the lower chamber. First signs of change surfaced last fall during the regular Senate elections, when some parties were unable to find viable candidates within their party ranks and opted, instead, for independent personalities.

Opinion polls repeatedly indicate that the public's confidence in political parties is very low. Basically all major Czech political parties have been involved in financial scandals. Politicians frequently put their personal and party interests above those of society. Many voters felt betrayed by politicians after last year's general elections, when the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) allied itself with its biggest opponent, the Social Democrats (CSSD), despite the fact ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus had repeatedly urged voters during the election campaign to "mobilize" against "a leftist danger" represented by the CSSD.

One of those voters was a staunch ODS supporter at that time, businessman Vaclav Fischer. The owner of the largest travel agency in the Czech Republic, who had become a successful businessman as an ‚migr‚ in Germany in the 1980s, decided to run for the Senate this summer mainly because he is bitterly opposed to the so-called opposition agreement-a power-sharing pact the ODS and the CSSD signed last year.

Despite the fact the ODS has fielded Jirina Jiraskova, a popular actress, and despite the act a coalition of small right-of-center parties has fielded Ivan Medek, a respected former dissident and former Chancellor of President Vaclav Havel's office, Fischer has very popular with voters. Pre-election polls indicated that he could gain more than 50% of the popular vote, gaining the Senate seat in the first round of the electoral contest.

Fischer's successful performance has shown not only that Czech politics is embracing some of the practices common in the West, where successful entrepreneurs often run for a political office, using their own money; it has also shown that the Czech public is well disposed to give a chance to influential non-partisans to enter politics.

The Senate race in central Prague has had an additional dimension. Until now, the ODS and the CSSD have had a constitutional majority in both chambers of the parliament, which would allow them with constitutional changes. The two parties have prepared a number of constitutional amendments that would, for example, curtail the power of the president. Should an independent candidate win in the Senate race in central Prague, the two parties would lose their constitutional majority in Senate.

The ODS, in particular, has engaged in vitreous attacks against Fischer, calling him a populist who wants to buy his way into the Senate. Such attacks run counter to the image of a liberal, pro-market party, the ODS wants to project. A liberal, right-of center party should welcome the fact that the Czech Republic has reached the point where a successful, unblemished, right-of-center businessman runs for a parliamentary seat.

Attacks on Fischer, as well as a lack of vision on part of political parties in the Prague Senate race, confirm that Czech politics is reaching a point where a real catharsis and rejuvenation will be necessary, should the whole democratic system not be put in doubt. It is increasingly clear that the current state of affairs produces a paralysis that could become a breeding ground for a crisis that can significantly change the country's political landscape.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 25. 8. 1999