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Czech Republic: Progress Probably Depends On Electoral Reform

  • Jeremy Bransten



Prague, 18 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In this weekend's elections to the lower house of the Czech Parliament, one thing is practically certain. It is that, given the existing system of proportional representation, no party will come out a clear winner and that the next Chamber of deputies is likely to be just as fractured as the previous one.

Britain's Economist magazine noted in a recent analysis that one would have to be a "jigsaw-puzzle fanatic to find something good to say about the current Czech political scene."

Not only does no party appear to stand a chance of obtaining an outright majority, but, as the magazine puts it, "Even the three and four party combinations that would work in purely mathematical terms make absolutely no political sense."

The fear is that once again, this election will lead to a stalemate, or at the very best to an unstable and short-lived coalition. The main parties, the rightist Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the leftist Social Democrats (CSSD), are ideological opponents. Together, they are likely to garner a majority of the votes, but they are hardly natural coalition partners. They must seek therefore among the smaller parties for possible coalition partners, and a number of those parties are often ill-suited to such a role.

These unpalatable options are driving an increasing number of commentators and politicians to ask whether the Czech electoral system needs to be changed. They note that the existing proportional system, under which any party that gets over five percent of the vote gains representation, will continue to yield two irreconcilable left and right blocs with a coterie of small, sometimes extremist parties holding the balance of power.

Italy and Israel are often cited as examples of this problem. But interwar Czechoslovakia, as historian Joseph Rothschild writes, also suffered from the same syndrome. Modern-day observers fear the Czech Republic may be doomed to repeat this pattern, leading voters to eventually to lose faith in the democratic system.

President Vaclav Havel, among others, has proposed moving to a majority system as one way of clearing this impasse. Under that system, the country would be divided into single-mandate electoral districts. The candidate who won over 50 percent of the vote in each district would be elected to parliament. Often, two or more rounds need to be held for a clear winner to emerge. But the advantage of this method is that it ties individual legislators to a particular home district. Instead of being elected on party slates, legislators are voted in by well-defined constituencies.

And the central advantage of the system is that it tends to create dynamic majorities while practically eliminating small extremist parties.

Czech Senators, who form the upper house of parliament, are already elected according to the majority system. And political commentator Bohumil Pecinka says that comparing the results of the last elections in parliament's upper and lower houses illustrates the advantage of the majority method.

"Just as one example, in the lower house of parliament, out of 200 deputies, 40 come from extremist parties. In the upper chamber, out of 81 Senators, there are only two extremists."

Of course, some commentators note, the disadvantage of the majority method is that it leaves some voters unrepresented. But all electoral systems have flaws. Some countries, like Germany, have tried to combine both majority and proportional methods. Under this system, half of the parliament's deputies are elected proportionally by party slates and half come from single-mandate districts. Russia and Ukraine, among others, have also adopted this system.

The main barrier to changing the ways voters choose their representatives in the Czech Republic is that the electoral mechanism is enshrined in the constitution.

But Pecinka says this need not be an insurmountable obstacle. He notes that France and Spain are examples of countries that have changed their constitutions to incorporate the majority mechanism.

And Pecinka adds that the predicted post-election stalemate facing the Czech Republic now can serve a useful purpose.

"The stalemate can be productive if the two largest parties create a grand coalition for a limited time and purpose, whose main purpose would be to change the electoral system and pass a new budget before holding new elections within half a year..."

Pecinka says the Czech Republic must modify its parliamentary system to give it a chance to better function under local conditions:

"Anyone who has looked at the Czech scene over the past 150 years knows that in Czech politics, consensus-building was never the watchword. It was always highly polarized and ideologized. It's simply our inheritance."

He says that changing the electoral system appears to be the only way out of this stalemate.
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