The Guardian December 6, 2000

Mass abstentions in Czech elections

Only one voter in five turned out on Sunday November 19 for the second 
and final round of elections to the Senate, the upper house of the Czech 
Republic's Parliament, where a third of the 81 seats were being contested. 
The previous Sunday, two-thirds of the voters stayed away from the first 
round of the Senate elections and also from the first statewide elections 
to 13 newly created regional councils, which were held on the same day.

The low turnout is a measure of the lack of confidence of the Czech people 
in their country's post-1989 bourgeois "democratic" institutions.

As Vaclav Vertelar wrote in the Communist Party's daily Halo Noviny: 
"Citizens are not interested in jokey but vacuous election slogans.

"They want a concrete, accountable programme which will create more jobs, 
give them rising real incomes, homes they can afford, good-quality health 
care and their children an education, fight crime, prevent banks and 
savings institutions from ripping them off, etc."

The low turnout was also a slap in the face for ex-Premier Vaclav Klaus's 
right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the four-Party Coalition (an 
electoral alliance of four smaller parties  the right-wing fundamentalist 
Freedom Union, Democratic Union and Civic Democratic Association and the 
centre-right Christian Democrats).

Previously bitter enemies (because of the ODS's "tolerance" of the Czech 
Republic's minority Social Democratic government), the Coalition and the 
ODS buried their hatchets and joined forces after the first round of the 
Senate elections on November 12 in an attempt to stampede voters with a 
"red scare", following the unexpected success of the Czech Communist Party 
(KSCM) in getting eight of its candidates through to the second round.

The result comes as the Czech people experience the full fruits of the 
restoration of capitalism after 1989.

They are confronted by a possible third economic crisis (as evidenced by 
the dramatic increase in the country's foreign trade deficit and rising 
inflation), mass unemployment in key industrial areas in North Bohemia and 
North Moravia, widespread job insecurity, and IMF/World Bank/EU-ordered 
cuts in public spending.

The Communists' success in the first round of the Senate elections was in 
many ways an even more remarkable achievement than their success in the 
elections to the new regional councils, where they won 21 percent of the 
vote (compared with 11 percent at the 1998 general election) and 23.8 
percent of the 675 seats.

This is because, in contrast to the proportional representation system used 
in the regional elections, the elections to the Senate were decided on the 
basis of a modified version of the single-member constituency, first-past-
the-post system, a system designed to advantage the two largest parties in 
the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies), currently the allied Social 
Democrats and ODS.

In the event, none of the Communist Party's eight candidates in the second 
round won, and the only retiring Communist Senator lost his seat leaving 
the party with just three seats in the upper house.

The main reason for this was that, while the right was able to unite 
against the "red threat", the Social Democrats again refused to work with 
the Communists in a full-blown national alliance against the right.

The ruling Social Democrats were the main losers, finishing third in the 
regional council elections with 15 percent of the vote and 111 of the 675 

In the Senate they lost eight seats while the right-wing four-Party 
Coalition gained 11 additional seats, giving them a total of 39 Senators 
out of 81, as against the ODS's 22, the Social Democrats' 15 and the 
Communists' 3. The remaining two seats are held by independents.

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Acknowledgements Ken Biggs, POSTMARK PRAGUE

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