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Czech Republic: Most Voters Stay Home In Elections

Prague, 17 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Czech voters were asked to cast ballots in local and Senate elections on Friday and Saturday (Nov. 13-14). But most voters chose to stay home. Nationwide, voter turnout was just over 42 percent for communal elections and less than 46 percent for Senate elections.

Admittedly, this represents a gain of more than seven percentage points in public interest in the Senate, compared to the Czech Republic's first elections to the upper chamber of parliament two years ago. But turnout for local elections was a whopping 20 percentage points less than in the last communal elections four years ago.

Some 180,000 candidates competed for 62,000 seats on municipal councils in 6,880 communities. As in 1990 and 1994, so-called independent candidates won 41 percent of all seats on municipal councils although they only gained 11 percent of the vote overall.

The opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus gained the biggest portion of the local vote of any party --more than 24 percent-- and won the largest share of seats in every major city in the country.

In Prague, ODS won 21 out of 55 seats on the municipal council, taking first place in each of the city's 10 electoral districts. The four-party coalition, Union for Prague, came in second with 16 seats, the Social Democrats (CSSD) won 10 seats, and the Communists (KSCM) eight seats.

Since ODS lacks a majority on the municipal council, which elects the mayor, the political future of Prague Mayor Jan Koukal, who heads ODS' party organization in Prague, is now in doubt. Unless ODS strikes a deal with the Social Democrats, Koukal may be forced out of office.

Not one of the 27 Senate races was won in the first round. One third of the 81-seat upper house is elected every two years for a six-year term.

ODS will field candidates in 22 of the 27 run-off races to the Senate next Friday and Saturday, 13 of them having placed first in the last week's voting. The four-party coalition will have 14 candidates in the run-offs, 10 of whom took first place over the weekend The Social Democrats will have 15 candidates in the next round, of whom only three took first place. The Communists will have three candidates and one independent will be running.

ODS and CSSD are thus guaranteed a majority in the Senate and have a good chance of achieving the three-fifths majority required to make constitutional changes. Those being discussed include changing the way the lower house of parliament is elected by abolishing the proportional representation system in favor of declaring as winner whichever candidate is first past the post. This reform is generally perceived as benefiting large parties at the expense of smaller parties and contributing to political stability. The pro-CSSD daily Pravo said many potential Social Democrat supporters stayed at home, having fallen victim to apathy resulting from the opposition agreement signed after last June's general elections. The deal allowed CSSD to form a minority government tolerated by ODS and assured ODS the speakership of the Senate. Pravo adds that the Zeman government's lackluster performance in its first three months in office --marked, it says, by unfulfilled promises, lack of direction and nepotism-- did little to attract undecided voters.

Similarly, the mass-circulation daily Mlada fronta Dnes notes that four-party coalition did unexpectedly well. This, the paper says, "did not arise in the name of a struggle against the Left, but mainly out of defiance against the unnatural, but omnipotent contractual pact between CSSD and ODS."

But a commentary in Lidove noviny credits the four-party coalition's performance to its having nominated more distinguished personalities than its rivals, thereby managing to attract undecided voters from both the right and left of the political spectrum.

In the most closely followed Senate race, Mayor Koukal came in a distant second in Prague's up-market sixth district, winning just 24 percent of the vote. Former Interior Minister Jan Ruml won over 40 percent of the ballots. Ruml heads the Freedom Union (US), a member of the four-party coalition.

ODS chairman Klaus said he was taken by surprise by his party's performance and suggested that being mayor and senator simultaneously is "deceptive and awkward" and may cost Koukal the Senate race. Klaus accused Ruml of what he termed "a campaign full of hatred." Commentators responded that Klaus had only himself to blame for the tone of the campaign.

In another surprising outcome in Prague, former health minister Zuzana Roithova, of the four-party coalition, came in nine-and-a-half percentage points ahead of the incumbent, ODS Senate whip Milan Kondr, in a race which all polls had tipped Kondr to win handily.

Klaus said the low turn-out was due to the elections having been the second balloting this year. His deputy, Libuse Bensesova, blamed the poor turnout on the elections being held in the Autumn, when she says Czechs are in a worse mood than in the Spring and when short days hamper campaigning.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman's Social Democrats did poorly in the local elections. He said he was particularly mortified by the outcome in the Senate, saying victory there had been within reach. Never one to mince words, Zeman announced that "heads must fall."

Zeman also accused those who did not vote of being "cowards" and ascribed the Social Democrats' failure in Prague to "the citizens of the capital being convinced that a megalomaniac poster...was enough of a reason to vote ODS." This was a reference to a controversial huge photo of Klaus displayed on a billboard on the former site of the world's largest statue of Stalin.