The 2013 Elections: The Deconsolidation of the Party System and the Rise of Anti-Politics

November 18, 2013

This year’s early elections to the Chamber of Deputies brought neither calm nor a left-wing majority to the Czech political scene. To the contrary, we experienced the greatest shock to the party system since the 1998 elections, the rise of new political parties and anti-political, populist entities, i.e. a deepening of trends which appeared already in the 2010 elections. The overall surprise at the election results was complemented on the very next day by a row within the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD).

Since 1998, the Czech party system has operated on a platform of five parties which has been dominated by two large parties, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the ČSSD, whose chairmen rightfully presented themselves as candidates for the post of prime minister. These hegemons on the left and right were supplemented by the Communist Party (KSČM), with no coalition potential, and two centrist parties. The five-party model did not change even after the 2010 elections, but what did change was the character of these parties and their strengths: the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and a centrist liberal party (Freedom Union in 1998 and 2002, the Green Party in 2006) were replaced in 2010 by the new groupings TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV). After this year’s early elections, the number of elected parties expanded to seven, and the hitherto functioning bipolar tendency completely collapsed. The Chamber of Deputies was occupied by representatives of four traditional parties (ČSSD, KSČM, ODS, KDU-ČSL) and three new entities (TOP 09, ANO 2011, Dawn of Direct Democracy of Tomio Okamura).

The changes in the party system can also be clearly demonstrated in terms of the numbers of seats allocated to individual parties. Until the 2010 elections, the ČSSD and the ODS won more than half of all seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The 2006 elections mark the peak in this respect, when the sum of seats for these two parties reached 77.5 per cent of the 200 seats. A weakening of their dominance was perceptible already in the 2010 elections when this figure fell to 54.5 per cent of seats. In the wake of the early elections this year, only 66 MPs will represent the former hegemons in the Chamber of Deputies, i.e. 33 per cent. This figure is a clear indicator that from this year’s elections onward we will observe a transformation of the Czech party system as we have known it since its consolidation in the 1990s.

The deconsolidation or collapse of the party system is also easily observed in the numbers of votes for parties and movements whose results did not surpass the five-per-cent threshold, and thus did not win any seats. Since the 1996 elections, the sum of the percentages garnered by successful parties has been around 90 per cent, again with its peak in the 2006 elections (94.02 per cent). In 2010, we see a decline to 81.15 per cent, and in this year’s elections a further drop to 80.5 per cent. This means that one-fifth of Czech voters handed their vote to a party or movement without representation in the Chamber of Deputies. This figure offers an interesting comparison with the 1992 elections to the Czech National Council, later the Chamber of Deputies, when the party system was still in its infancy. Here, eight entities surpassed the five-per-cent threshold and the sum of their percentages was 80.89 per cent – i.e. even a little more than in 2013.

The rise and fall of the ODS and bipolar tendencies

Whereas the winner of the elections, the Czech Social Democratic Party, achieved its worst showing since 1996, for the former hegemon on the right, the Civic Democratic Party, the 2013 elections in which it garnered just 7.72 per cent of votes were quite literally a tragedy. Within the bipolar tendencies, an alternation occurred in the winners of “first-” and “second-” order elections. As first-order elections we count elections to the Chamber of Deputies and newly also presidential elections; second-order elections include regional, municipal, Senate and EU elections. In comparing these two types of elections, we can trace a clear tendency among voters to prefer opposition parties in second-order elections. During Social Democratic governments, the right-wing hegemon, the ODS, gradually garnered victories in regional, Senate and EU elections. The ODS enjoyed an absolute majority in the Senate after the 2006 elections, it won the 2004 elections to the European Parliament with over 30 per cent, compared to 8.78 per cent for the ČSSD, and it won the 2004 regional elections in all but one region. From 2003, the head of state was the party’s founder, Václav Klaus. When Mirek Topolánek led the party to its best showing in its entire history and became prime minister after the 2006 elections, the party had governors in almost all of the regions, an absolute majority in the Senate, a president and a prime minister with a fragile majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Thus, in 2006 the ODS was at the notional peak of a sine curve. After seven years and two electoral periods in government, by contrast, it is now at its notional trough with 15 senators, 16 MPs and no president or governors. In view of the changing map of the party system, however, the ODS cannot expect automatic growth akin to that to which the Social Democrats could look forward in 2006.

After going into opposition, the ČSSD – like the ODS before it – gradually won second-order elections with the exception of the 2009 elections to the European Parliament, which were influenced by events connected to the fall of the Topolánek government during the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Social Democrats thus won governorships and an absolute majority in the Senate. In 2013, the presidential elections were won by Miloš Zeman, a former chairman of ČSSD, although running as the candidate of the Party of Civic Rights – Zeman’s People. Zeman advanced to the second round as the left-wing candidate against Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09), the candidate of the right. As the likely prime minister of the next government, the ČSSD’s current chairman, Bohuslav Sobotka, finds himself today at the peak of the sine curve with his party colleagues serving as governors, a majority in the Senate and former ČSSD Chairman Miloš Zeman in Prague Castle.

With respect to the role of Presidents Klaus and Zeman, however, it must be mentioned that Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek definitely did not experience peaceful co-existence with former ODS Chairman Václav Klaus. In the same way, Bohuslav Sobotka represents a different wing of the Social Democrats, and his likely cooperation with Miloš Zeman on the level of the executive will not be simple.

Anti-politics and populism

The success of two anti-politics and populist movements, billionaire Andrej Babiš’s ANO 2011 and entrepreneur and Senator Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy, is based on longstanding dissatisfaction with the political situation and a crisis of political parties. The parties are not capable of offering citizens a credible alternative, and politicians have appeared with slogans like “We’re not like Politicians. We work.” (ANO 2011) and “An end to disarray and corruption” (Dawn).

The term “populism”, which is understood in general discourse as the promising of something popular but unfulfillable, is used here in a different sense. Political science designates as populist politicians those who appeal to “good” people and set them in opposition to a specific enemy. This can be e.g. the political elite or an ethnic or social minority. Populism is thus a certain kind of strategy to address citizens, voters. It is therefore completely logical that Andrej Babiš and Tomio Okamura opted to establish political movements rather than parties. In doing so, they draw on general perceptions of parties, partisanship and politics as something a priori negative. The campaigns’ main slogans thus do not focus on issues such as the tax rate or solutions to social and economic problems, but rather on a clear distinction from “politicians”, i.e. the corrupt and lazy elites.

The second-wealthiest Czech, Andrej Babiš, built his campaign on his image as a successful entrepreneur with a proven track record. Political scientists Radek Buben and Jan Bíba call this strategy “entrepreneurial populism” and place Andrej Babiš into context with, among other things, the style of Silvio Berlusconi. Representatives of ANO 2011 ran already in the 2012 Senate elections without winning a single seat. Andrej Babiš built a new way of appealing to voters on recruiting personalities well known to the Czech public, and through a better presentation in the campaign. The result was a surprising showing of over 900,000 votes and 18.65 per cent in this year’s early elections. Based on simple arithmetic and the current distribution of strengths in the Chamber of Deputies, it becomes clear that with 47 seats – and thus as the second strongest parliamentary party – no government can be formed without the support of ANO 2011.

The second slogan cited, from the workshop of the Dawn movement, suggests that Tomio Okamura represents a more aggressive, more radical and more personalised variant of populism. The main slogan of the campaign and programme was direct democracy based on introducing referendums and the ability to recall politicians. In addition to the programme of direct democracy, there are the particularly unsettling opinions of the movement’s leader, Okamura, about the Roma minority, in particular his thesis on establishing an independent state for the Roma. Despite the proclamation of direct democracy, it is certainly worth noting the functioning of the movement itself, which is based on weak democratic foundations. Despite several thousand registered sympathisers, Dawn had only nine members at the beginning of November. According to its statutes, Dawn does not even establish any organisational units, and the whole movement is directed by the chairman, a five-member board and the party conference. In contrast to the complicated structure of established political parties, Dawn’s structure places significant powers in the hands of the chairman and the board, consisting of the chairman, the secretary and three other members.

Reconstructing the party system

The collapse of the party system has affected mainly the right side of the party spectrum and has eliminated the bipolar contest by creating a strong centrist entity in the form of the ANO 2011 movement. The left did not emerge unscathed from the late October election weekend either, however. Disputes between two wings of the Social Democratic Party culminated in a call for Chairman Bohuslav Sobotka’s resignation on the very next day after the election results were announced, and in an attempt to replace Sobotka with Michal Hašek, its first deputy chairman. Bohuslav Sobotka’s allies called this action a party-internal coup, while Michal Hašek’s supporters characterised it as a logical reaction to the party’s poor showing in the elections. At a convened meeting of the party’s central executive committee, Bohuslav Sobotka emerged victorious from what was probably the biggest row within the ČSSD since 1989.

The future shape of the Czech party system is very difficult to guess today. In the Chamber of Deputies, there are several small parties (ODS, KDU-ČSL, Dawn), for which a loss of two or three percentage points could mean the end of their representation in the lower chamber. In the past, this was the fate of the Green Party, the Civic Democratic Alliance, Freedom Union and also KDU-ČSL, which was the only one which managed to return to the Chamber of Deputies in subsequent elections. Although the Green Party has not returned to the Chamber of Deputies, unlike the other parties it has remained on the political scene. The fall of Public Affairs into oblivion is a warning for moderately strong entities that even a 10 per cent showing in elections is far from a guarantee of political longevity. VV’s fate as an anti-political and populist entity should be on the minds of Dawn and ANO 2011 MPs. Whether in the future we will see the emergence of new hegemons on the left and right or greater fragmentation with a stronger centre remains in the stars for now. The coming months and elections to the Senate, European Parliament and municipal councils in 2014 will tell us more.


Štěpán Drahokoupil is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Charles University. He graduated in political science from Charles University and his research focus is comparative political science, specifically political systems and the theory of democratic, hybrid and undemocratic regimes.