During October there were elections to the regional assemblies and one-third of the Senate in the Czech Republic.The outcome can be summarized as follows: The Association of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement of Andrej Babiš had the best showing in the regional contests, but their potential coalition partners lost ground, and as a consequence, ANO will be part of coalition governments in just some regions. Opposition parties gained strength and the left absolutely failed. In the Senate elections, the clear victor was the Mayors and Independents (STAN) movement, and we can call the Social Democrats the most defeated, as they did not defend a single seat. Both elections were marked by concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people perceive the outcome to be a kind of overture to the elections to the Chamber of Deputies that await the Czech Republic next year.
The bitter victory of the ANO movement in the regions
During the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in 2017, Babiš redrew the Czech Republic’s political map. His ANO movement won 30 % of the vote and 40 % of the seats. The other eight parties represented in the lower house ended up far behind him, winning between five and 11 % of the ballots cast. The leading Czech oligarch has therefore unequivocally dominated the political scene for the last three years. His minority coalition government with the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) depends on being tolerated in the lower house by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). During some votes, the governing coalition can also rely on the radical-right Freedom and Direct Democracy movement (SPD). This has given the current Prime Minister and his party significant room for maneuver. Thanks to that room, he is successfully managing to withstand suspicions of conflict of interest and EU subsidy abuse.
Judging just from the numbers of regional assembly members now elected, the PM could be satisfied. After three years as head of government, his movement has maintained a clear advantage over its rivals. There are 178 regional assembly members, female and male, wearing his movement’s uniform, two more than resulted from the last regional election. Moreover, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Pirate Party won 99 regional seats each, splitting the second and third-place results between them, i.e., they are both rather far from “victory”. A problem arises, however, when we look at the regional electoral failure of ANO’s potential coalition partners, the ones with whom the movement collaborates at the national level. Both the ČSSD and the KSČM have now lost significant amounts of regional representation. The Social Democrats have fallen from 125 regional seats to 37, while the Communists have fallen from 86 seats to 13. For example, these two parties are no longer represented on the Central Bohemian Regional Assembly, and a broad coalition of all the other parties has now been created against ANO there. Frustrated by this situation, the PM described it by using the words “conspiracy of hate”. As of this writing, it seems that of the 10 regions won by the ANO movement, their candidate will be seated as Governor in just three (out of 13 regional assemblies).
If anybody can be very satisfied with the results of the regional elections, it is the Pirates. They increased the number of regional assembly seats won this year by 94, moving from five seats to 99. Their assembly members will be part of many coalition governments in the regions. In the Olomouc Region, moreover, where they attempted collaboration with STAN, their common result was almost 20 % of the vote. That successful campaign strategy argues in favor of their possible cooperation at the national level for the lower house elections.
The left wing
The left-wing parties of the ČSSD and the KSČM have been clearly defeated during these elections. To illustrate the situation within the governing Social Democrats, one could mention their personnel problems, which are not small. Many of their former representatives, including Governor Josef Bernard and Governor Jiří Zimola, ran on the candidate lists of other groups this time. In the Ústecký Region we found a former regional assembly member for the Social Democrats on a joint candidate list with the regional grouping of UFO and ProMost. That grouping, unlike the ČSSD, has now fought its way onto the regional assembly. A summary of the regional results and a comparison to the 2016 elections can be seen in the table below.
A characteristic feature of the regional elections this year was the large number of coalitions of every possible kind. Traditionally these have featured centrist or right-wing parties that are smaller, such as the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), the Green Party, STAN, TOP 09, or regional groups. The ANO movement, the KSČM, and the SPD, on the other hand, got along without such maneuvers.
Compared to the previous regional contest, we saw two former hegemons of Czech politics, ČSSD and ODS, now running in coalitions. Thanks to such coalitions, the ODS shared a first-place victory with STAN and the Východočechy (“East Bohemians”) in the Hradec Králové Region. ČSSD shared a candidate list with the 3PK group in the Pardubice Region and achieved the very good result of 15 % of the vote. The Pirates joined just one coalition ticket, in the Olomouc Region, marking a big shift from the previous regional elections where the party ran in coalitions more frequently.
The Green Party ran independently in four regions and in coalition in the other nine, joining partners ranging from the conservative TOP 09 and KDU-ČSL, to the centrist STAN, LES or HLAS parties, to the left-wing ČSSD and regional groupings as well. The Greens won their six regional assembly seats when counted by party (seven if counted by affiliation) only in the contests where they ran in coalition. Green assembly members will be seated in six regions, while in the seventh (Hradec Králové) their common candidate list with the ČSSD won, but no Green Party candidate was actually seated on the regional assembly. The Greens were only not successful running in coalition in the Liberec and Moravian-Silesian contests. Joining coalitions has therefore proven to be a successful strategy for them.
Coalition tickets were mostly established with the intention of integrating the centrist and right-wing opposition parties. In some regions, however, we can see diverse left-right coalitions that would be surprising if they happened at the national level. In the Plzeň Region, those who agreed to collaborate on a common ticket were the Greens, the Idealists (a breakaway Social Democratic youth organization), the regional Pro Plzeň (“For Plzeň”) group and STAN. The lead candidate of the list was the former Social Democratic Governor Josef Bernard. They came in third place with almost 15 % of the vote, while the ČSSD received not quite 6 %. The Greens and the Idealists also teamed up in coalition in the South Moravian Region, where they agreed to collaborate with the conservative TOP 09 party, the Moravian Provincial Movement, and the Liberal Environmental Party.
The fact that regional politics enjoys a certain autonomy is demonstrated not just by these unusual coalition tickets, but also by the creation of regionally governing coalitions featuring members of both the nationally governing parties and the opposition groupings in the Chamber of Deputies. In the Moravian-Silesian Region, for example, the coalition of ANO, KDU-ČSL and ODS, augmented by the Social Democrats, will continue to govern there. In the Zlín Region a new coalition has arisen of ANO, ČSSD, ODS and the Pirates.
There were significant concerns about voter turnout this year in association with the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually turnout was 38 %, the second highest ever after the 2008 results. Generally speaking, the pandemic essentially did not influence the outcome of the elections. However, turnout is important when considering what these results imply for the lower house elections in 2021. Turnout for parliamentary contest has usually come close to 60 % and involves a different set of voters. It was exactly those who usually vote for ANO, KSČM or the Social Democrats who most likely did not participate in the 2020 regional elections, costing them support. Thanks to this, it has been possible to create coalitions in a large number of regions against ANO, who otherwise had a strong showing. Just like the regional elections, whether Babiš retains his position as PM next year will depend more on the electoral outcomes of his potential coalition partners such as the ČSSD and the KSČM. The effect of this differently profiled electorate was felt most recently in Czech politics during the second round of the presidential election in 2018, when the victorious Zeman was able to mobilize people who do not usually vote and thereby to defeat his opponent, Jiří Drahoš.
Regional contests get less voter attention because they are considered less significant. Turnout was further reduced by the crisis around the COVID-19 pandemic and the campaigns themselves were less visible. That is associated with the absence of any big, strong issues that more than one region might have in common. For example, in the Central Bohemian Region what dominated was criticism of incumbent Governor Jermanová (for ANO), while in the Zlín Region it was disagreement over the building of a new hospital. The same can be said of this year’s elections to the upper house with respect to themes.
The Senate and the dominance of the opposition
ANO has never done well during elections to the Senate. They scored their best result six years ago, with four seats. Their single seat this year (out of 27 open for contest) also became the only seat held there by a member of a governing party (ANO or ČSSD). Moreover, the newly seated senator for ANO, representing the Karviná precinct, won by defeating the ČSSD candidate in runoff.
The clear victors of the Senate contest are the opposition parties, predominantly STAN, which won 11 seats, while the second-best result was recorded by ODS with five. That is followed by KDU-ČSL with three new Senate seats and TOP 09 with two. The group called Senátor 21, which supports independent candidates for the Senate, won in two precincts. The Pirates won one Senate seat, as did the Svobodní (The Free Citizens Party). A candidate for the Svobodní last won a national contest in 2014 during the European Parliamentary contest, where they became a member of the European Freedom and Direct Democracy faction along with Britain’s UKIP and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The Social Democrats are apparently the least satisfied with their Senate results. They did not defend a single of the 10 seats they won in 2014 and now have just three senators in the upper chamber. As a result, their club in the Senate no longer exists, as at least five senators are required to form one. Social Democrat Jiří Dienstbier, the former Human Rights Minister, did not defend his Senate seat, nor did the former president of the Senate, Milan Štěch, who had held a seat in the upper chamber ever since it was created in 1996.
The overall Senate results can be seen in the table below. You will also find a comparison there with the outcomes of the four Senate elections held during the last six years. These results include senators running on a single-party ticket and do not include the results of coalition tickets or independent affiliations. This year the Green Party seated none of their senate candidates, female or male, but three senators were elected for coalition tickets in which they participated. The coalition candidates who won ran for the regionally profiled Hradec Democratic Club, for the KDU-ČSL, and for the Senátor 21 group.
We know of situations in the past where the Senate has gradually been won by opposition parties and played the role not just of guaranteeing the constitutionality of legislation, but also of a political counterbalance to the Chamber of Deputies. Currently the ascendancy of opposition parties in the upper chamber is absolutely dominant and the governing parties will, during the next two years, be able to rely just on a few of their own representatives. This will be one of the weakest if not the absolutely weakest representations of governing parties in the Senate since the upper chamber was created.
Representation of women: Minor optimism in the regions, failure in the Senate
When it comes to the representation of women on regional assemblies and in the Senate, we can see some progress in the regional contests and an average result in the upper chamber of Parliament. Women won 22.1 % of the regional assembly seats, and compared to previous elections, this was a growth of 1.8 %. It is good news that these gains are rising across the board, whereby more women are represented on regional assemblies after each election. The bad news is the fact that if the difference between male and female representation will be reduced at the tempo of a 1.8 % increase in each election, we will not achieve 50 % female representation for another 60 years, sometime around the elections in the year 2080.
Four of the six female Senate candidates who made it into the second round won seats. Of 27 newly elected senators total, 14.8% are women and 85.2 % are men. The overall representation of women in the Senate will also be 14.8 % for the next two years, the worst result for women in 14 years. We last saw such a male-female ratio in the upper house in 2006, while the best result ever there was scored after the 2016 election, with 19.8 % of the seats held by women.
The above-mentioned numbers just confirm the Czech Republic’s position somewhere in the middle of the global scale published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. When comparing the parliamentary representation of women here to that of other countries, the Czech Republic is at 92nd place out of 188 countries, a ranking held along with Ireland and Panama. Compared to other countries in the region, Slovakia is two rankings ahead of the Czech Republic, while Estonia and Poland both share 58th place, Hungary is far behind at 157th place, Austria comes in 27th and Germany comes in 48th.
The difference between the outcomes of the regional and Senate elections confirms the effect of the majority vote system for election to the Senate compared to the proportional representation system for election to a regional assembly. Majoritarian systems are less favorable to the representation of women than proportional ones are.
The future of the left is in question, many variables in play for Czech politics
The outcomes of the regional and Senate elections confirm several longstanding trends. Left-wing parties like the Communists and Social Democrats are balancing on the edge of electability. A big question mark still hangs over whether they will be seated in the Chamber of Deputies after the 2021 elections, despite the fact that lower voter turnout was to their disadvantage this year. According to October’s polls, neither party would win the 5 % of the vote necessary to be seated in the lower chamber.
The future success of Prime Minister Babiš depends on the future success of the left. If he loses his current allies, the situation in many regions now could be repeated at the national level, whereby the other political parties form a government that excludes the party with the strongest showing. While that scenario may seem hopeful for voters of the opposition with respect to the lower house elections, there are many presuppositions that would have to be fulfilled for that to happen. This includes creating functional coalitions among the opposition parties, the left-wing parties failing to be re-elected to the Chamber of Deputies, or the left-wing parties being unwilling to collaborate with ANO anymore. Furthermore, winning a majority of 101 votes, i.e., more than half of the seats in the lower house, would have to be a joint venture of the KDU-ČSL, the ODS, the Pirates, STAN and TOP 09 if they want to leave both ANO and the SPD out of the coalition.
Last but not least, it is necessary to bear in mind that the head of state is an ally of the current Prime Minister and will not be afraid to come up with fresh solutions to this dilemma from a constitutional perspective. President Zeman demonstrated that, for example, when he appointed the “presidential” Government of Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok in 2013 - an administration that had no chance of achieving a majority vote of confidence in the lower house, but that governed the country for seven months nevertheless.
There is just one year to go until the next elections and the situation around the COVID-19 pandemic may yet interfere far more with ANO’s dominance. The Czech Republic is coping very poorly with the pandemic in comparison to other states. As the number of COVID-19 cases rises, voter preference for Babiš falls. According to the October polls mentioned above, the PM’s party has scored its worst result since the last elections to the lower house, losing 10 % since the spring. Compared to the regional and Senate elections this year, COVID-19 could play a far more significant role in the lower house elections of 2021.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.
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