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Analysis: Czech Ruling Coalition Dealt Severe Blow In Europarliament Elections

  • Michael Shafir

It is not the defeat of the ruling center-left coalition in the first Czech participation in an election to the European Parliament that makes that vote exceptional. Rather, it is the possible immediate consequences of that ballot's results. Incumbent governments were defeated almost everywhere in the 25 member countries. It was only in Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg, Slovakia, and Spain that incumbent governments either did well or reasonably well in the 10-13 June election -- the first one conducted in the enlarged EU. The debacle for ruling governments was serious in neighboring Germany and the United Kingdom as well, but in those countries there is apparently little danger of them having to face early elections. Not so in the Czech Republic.

Out of the three ruling parties, the senior coalition Social Democratic Party (CSSD) finished a humiliating fifth out of the six formations that managed to pass the 5 percent electoral hurdle. Having garnered 8.78 percent of the vote, the CSSD will be represented in Strasbourg and Brussels -- the two official seats of the European Parliament -- by only two deputies. While polls were predicting the CSSD's defeat, the party was expecting to place third in the race. The junior coalition Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) performed even worse, and was unable to enlist sufficient support to secure even one seat. Although it ran on joint lists with several other minuscule formations, such as the Union of Liberal Democrats, the US-DEU managed a dismal 1.69 percent. Only the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL), which is the second junior coalition partner, performed as pollsters predicted, winning 9.57 percent of the vote and two mandates in the European Parliament.

In other words, out of the 24 seats that Czech voters had to distribute, the ruling coalition won only four. Five seats were gained by two formations confusingly including the word "independent" in their names: the Association of Independents-European Democrats (SNK-ED) coalition co-led by former Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec garnered 11.02 percent of the vote and will be represented by three deputies, while the Independents (NEZ), headed by former TV Nova General Director Vladimir Zelezny, won 8.18 percent and will send two deputies.

Zelezny is a self-declared "Euroskeptic" and is close to the main opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which won the elections with 30.04 percent of the vote and will have nine European Parliament seats. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) finished second, with 20.26 percent and six seats. This means that in their first election after joining the EU on 1 May this year, the Czechs have solidly endorsed political formations that distance themselves from the closer integration of the EU.

The honorary chairman of the ODS is the chief Czech Euroskeptic, President Vaclav Klaus, who hastened to welcome the outcome of the ballot, as well as the low turnout for the vote. Only 28.32 percent of eligible Czech voters bothered to cast a vote, which, in Klaus' s opinion, has demolished the "naivete" of those with a pro-EU orientation. Furthermore, the president said, the outcome of the ballot is likely to have important domestic political consequences.

This might indeed be so. Again, it is not the high abstention rate (after all, neighboring Slovakia set a record of a 16.97 percent turnout, and participation was low across Europe, with the lowest turnouts in the 10 new EU members) but what that rate produced that counts. The six KSCM members elected to the European Parliament are the first unreformed communist formation to be represented in that forum and opponents of the EU of one political shade or another -- from the NEZ to the KSCM via the ODS -- received an absolute majority of over 58 percent of the electorate.

As a result of his party's fiasco, US-DEU Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares has already announced he intends to step down. There are in the US-DEU many opponents to the party's participation in the current coalition, indeed two deputies left the party earlier this year precisely on these grounds, though they never voted against the ruling coalition, which leans on fragile majority of 101 in the 200-seat lower house. Should the US-DEU withdraw, the KDU-CSL is unlikely to agree to stay in a coalition backed in parliament by the KSCM, as its new chairman, Miroslav Kalousek, announced soon upon his election in late 2003. Unlike Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, his predecessor at the KDU-CSL's helm, Kalousek is known to prefer a partnership with the ODS. But above all, voices are already heard in the CSSD hinting that a change in the government and possibly at the party's helm might be called for. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has been forced to call for a renewed vote of confidence by the party's Central Committee, which is to convene for this purpose on 11 July.

The curtain on the European Parliament's election has fallen, but the curtain for the next Czech parliamentary elections seems to be rapidly rising.