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Oct 23, 2017

Czechs swing rightwards

Another election, another bad result for the centre-left. The future direction of Czech politics is uncertain, although public opinion remains basically centrist.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

There were no major surprises in Saturday’s Czech election (read my preview here), but it confirmed what a truly awful year this has been for the mainstream centre-left in Europe. The Social Democrats, the party of outgoing prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, lost two-thirds of their vote, falling to sixth place with 7.3% and 15 of the 200 seats. (See official results here.)

For the first time since the restoration of democracy, they were outvoted by the Communist Party (7.8% and 15 seats), but not due to any strong performance by the latter. It also lost more than half its vote; it just didn’t fall quite as fast as the Social Democrats.

The only mainstream party to emerge with any credit was the centre-right Civic Democrats, once the ruling party, who in 2013 had collapsed to just 8.8%. They staged a modest recovery to take second place with 11.3% and 25 seats, just ahead of the Pirate Party, who entered parliament with a remarkably strong showing of 10.8% and 22 seats.

In first place, eclipsing its rivals as expected, was ANO, the party of billionaire media tycoon Andrej Babiš, with 29.6% and 78 seats.

Babiš now has pretty much a free choice of allies; the prospect of anyone putting together a majority without him is essentially zero. He has said he’s willing to talk to everyone, but has ruled out co-operation with either the Communists or the far-right Freedom & Direct Democracy (SPD), whose 10.6% and 22 seats put them in fourth place.

The latter exclusion must have surprised some journalists, who had tagged ANO and SPD indiscriminately as Eurosceptic populists. But although he has promised to resist joining the eurozone (which Czechia is theoretically committed to doing), Babiš is not otherwise anti-European; his politics are basically centrist, which is what the majority of Czechs seem to want.

Completing the roster of parties to clear the 5% threshold were the Christian Democrats (5.8% and ten seats, losing 2% and four seats), the liberal TOP 09 (5.3% and seven seats, massively down from 13.7% and 26 seats), and Mayors & Independents, also broadly liberal, which enters parliament for the first time with 5.2% and six seats.

No-one else came close; next was the Party of Free Citizens with just 1.6%. Turnout was 60.8%, up 1.3% on last time.

Although ANO’s vote was very much what the polls had predicted (although they underestimated the collapse of the left and the rise of Pirates and SPD), Babiš’s position is somewhat stronger than I had expected, for an interesting reason. (Warning: this gets a bit technical.)

In my preview, I reported that allocation of seats was D’Hondt proportional – relying on this summary from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. But it clearly isn’t.

If you look at the 2013 allocation, it looks a lot like D’Hondt. It’s only if you do the calculation yourself that you find it’s not quite: it’s a bit more advantageous to the major parties. The then top two parties, the Social Democrats and ANO, came away with 50 and 47 seats respectively; by D’Hondt that would have been 47 and 43.

This year, with the leading party further out in front, the disproportion is more striking. ANO, with 31.6% of the vote after factoring out parties below the threshold, won 39% of the seats. On a D’Hondt basis it would have won only 64; most of the others would have done better, especially those at the bottom of the table. Mayors & Independents would have won 11 instead of six.

So I don’t know what method the Czechs are using; I can’t get any highest averages method to duplicate those numbers. It looks as if they’re doing the allocation at regional level, which would certainly account for the distortion, but in that case it’s remarkable that it’s as small as it is – compare the Spanish system, which I’ve discussed before, where the overall result is much less proportional. (This paper seems to confirm the idea – note “all seats are allocated within the districts” on page eight – but it’s a few years old. No doubt there are better sources available if one can read Czech.)

Anyway, the upshot is that a party that’s well out in front, as ANO is, does rather better than its share of the vote would justify. The difference between 78 and 64 wouldn’t make the difference of Babiš being prime minister or not, but it certainly gives him more leverage.

The Civic Democrats have ruled out participating in government, and it’s most unlikely the Social Democrats would sign up for another term. Babiš’s relationship with TOP 09 is also notoriously bad. But support from the Pirates plus either the Christian Democrats or Mayors & Independents would give ANO a comfortable majority.

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