The 2014 European Parliament election in the Czech Republic

2013 was for the Czech Republic a “super election” year. A new president and new parliament were elected, and the political map has been redrawn significantly. The 2013 winners and losers will try to confirm or restore their positions in the 2014 European Parliament election, which Czech voters have historically considered to be “second-class” compared to the national parliamentary elections. To beat the traditionally low turnout and attract voters, political parties are either betting on popular or outstanding candidates or pushing some populist agenda, such as immigration.

Foto: CreativeCommons/ European Parliament


Share on LinkedIn0Share on Google+0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0

Small, new and yet successful

The upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections will take place on the 23rd and 24th of May in the Czech Republic. The official deadline for nominating candidates was March 18th. In the end, 39 individual parties registered to run for the election, which is even more than in the 2004 and 2009 EP elections, in which 32 and 33 parties and movements ran, respectively. This is a clear reversal of the trend in National Parliament (NP) elections, where the number of running parties has dropped from 27 (2010) to 24 (2013). The number of parties running for the EP in 2009 was 19% higher than for the NP in 2010. This year, the number is significantly higher: 39% more parties and movements have opted to take part in the EP election than in the NP elections the previous year. This pattern seems to fit one of the essential characteristics of the “second-class” elections model as articulated by Karlheinz Reif and Herman Schmitt in the early 1980s. They distinguished EP elections from NP elections with three patterns – more space for smaller and newer political parties, lower voter turnout, and less support for government parties. Not only are there more smaller and newer parties in EP elections, but they also typically achieve better results than in NP elections. Using the concept of the effective number of parties (which provides for an adjusted number of political parties in a country’s party system, counts the parties and then weights the count by the parties’ relative strength), the effective number of political parties running for the 2006 NP election in the Czech Republic was 3.2, whereas the number for the EP election was 3. There is a 0.14 difference, favouring smaller parties. This trend is usually explained by the different approaches voters have to these two types of elections. While voters’ viewpoints are more pragmatic in NP elections (“voting with the head”), in the EP elections voters choose the platforms that are most consistent with their convictions.

Low turnout and distrust

Despite a much wider selection, voter turnout tends to be much lower for EP elections compared to NP elections in the Czech Republic. In both 2004 and 2009, only slightly more than 28% of eligible voters took part in the democratic process. In contrast, voter turnout for the NP election in 2002 was 58% and in 2006 it was 64.5% – a difference of 29.7% and 36.3%, respectively. Although the Czech Republic does not have the lowest EP election voter turnout of all the EU member states, these numbers clearly show that Czech society is not very interested in this type of elections. The general Czech public opinion cannot be classified as positively pro-EU. According to data gathered by the STEM polling agency in February 2014, the EU has the trust of only 34% of Czech citizens polled. That is, from a long-term perspective, the lowest number since the foundation of the European Union in 1993 (the STEM polling agency began to survey Czech opinions on the EU one year later). The EP is trusted by 30% of respondents, and only 51% of those polled claimed to know about the new EP elections taking place in May of this year. Most respondents were not able to name a single Member of Parliament (MEP) representing the Czech Republic or explain how the EP works and what its jurisdiction is. These results only confirm that Czech society is not very enthusiastic about the EU, which could also explain why the first two EP elections in 2004 and 2009 were won by the political party that is considered the least pro-European of the entire Czech political spectrum: the right-wing eurosceptic Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS).

Against the government

Up to now, EP elections have not exactly been a success for the parties chosen in the NP elections to form the government. The 2004 EP resulted in a disaster for the ruling Czech Social Democratic Party (Česká strana sociálně demokratická, ČSSD), which gained only 8.7%, resulting in the resignation of its Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla. The leading opposition party, the right-wing ODS, won 30%, followed by the second strongest parliamentary party in opposition, the Czech and Moravian Communist Party (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM), with 20.2%. The situation in the next EP election in June 2009 was more complex. ODS led the centre-right wing coalition in 2009 which lost its majority in the parliament and had to dissolve only a month before the EP election in May 2009. ODS was thus not the ruling party at the time of the election, when it won again with 31.4%.

Combating Euro

The ongoing election campaign may be considered featureless or “grey” so far. The election platforms that have been presented focus on general areas, such as the economy, social issues and ecology, and mostly mirror the traditional agendas of the parties for the NP elections. However, two topics stand out: euro adoption and immigration. The intensity with which they have been articulated in the campaign by some parties is closely interconnected with the parties’ internal situations. Following the “super election” year of 2013, we can divide these parties into winners and losers who are focusing on the EP 2013 election in order to either confirm their gains or restore lost positions. The latter applies to the ODS, which faces the most difficult task: defending its nine of 21 total seats reserved for the Czech Republic. The winner of previous two EP elections has experienced a hard time. The ODS-led government collapsed due to a political scandal connected with Prime Minister Petr Nečas in the middle of 2013 and subsequently suffered a serious defeat, gaining only 7.7% in autumn 2013 NP election. The EP election is therefore an important opportunity for this party to “jumpstart” its declining electoral support, regain self-confidence and re-establish itself as a right-wing leader beside the rising ANO2011. Therefore, it has chosen to fight the euro adoption process as its priority for the EP campaign. As its MEP candidates, it nominated its long-time representative in the EP and its most experienced man on EU matters, Jan Zahradil, as well as a former member of the Czech National Bank Board of Governors, Eva Zamrazilová, who is a strong opponent of euro adoption. The ODS shares its anti-euro position with ANO 2011, the Party of Free Citizens (Strana svobodných občanů, SSO), the Active Independent Citizens Party (Aktiv nezávislých občanů, ANEO), the Czech Sovereignty Party (Česká suverenita) and Public Affairs (Věci veřejné, VV). Opposition to the euro and a slightly eurosceptic attitude are the only things that these political parties have in common, however. This pattern also holds true for the parties on the opposite side of the euro discussion: TOP09 and ČSSD are otherwise not political parties with similar ideological backgrounds.

Immigration – finding an enemy?

Unlike the ODS, Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy (Úsvit přímé demokracie Tomia Okamury) started from scratch and gained an impressive 6.8% in the 2013 NP election. Its task for the EP election is thus to confirm its previous electoral success. It has chosen a clearly negative approach to EU immigration policy as a major task on its agenda. In candidate leader Klára Samková’s official response to the media, it is directly stated that one of the main goals of the movement is to completely stop immigration into EU member states. The statement is an example of nationalist rhetoric and economic populism. The choice of words is supposed to invoke in the reader the feeling that immigration itself is very dangerous and should be feared: “Immigration into EU countries is a very big mess. … We must send a key signal that the EU countries won’t accept any immigrants, that we protect the EU and the southern states particularly. We are sorry, but do not embark on your cockleboats; we won’t accept you. Would it not be easier and more proper to attempt to spread European ideas and functioning systems to the countries from which immigrants come? And now look at the actual EU policy – the ostrich is a brave animal in comparison with it. Every sign of cowardice with which the EU tries to escape from the conflict in Syria, not to mention Ukraine, will reflect back with a thousand times more intensity in the immigration policy. It is time someone tells, or screams, this to the Brussels rats (I am sorry, current members of the EP)… which I am willing to do if I am there.” While immigration is not the most burning issue in the Czech Republic, Okamura’s movement seems to exploit the topic as it did with the issue of Roma and “non-adaptables” during the NP election’s campaign. The current EU immigration policy is presented as allowing immigrants to come to Europe, which could pose an immediate threat to the Czech way of life and even Europe’s very existence. The movement tries to provide direct and simple explanations in response to such claims. According to the latest poll, we can see that the Dawn of Direct Democracy is expected to gain about 6.7% of the votes. The topic of immigration has also been marginally voiced by the extremist Worker’s Party of Social Justice (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti, DSSS) led by Tomáš Vandas, which profiles itself strongly against the EU, euro and immigration, manifesting its standpoint through the burning of the EU flag and the slogan “Out of the crisis = out of the EU”, and by the Czech Sovereignty Party (Česká suverenita), which stands for regulation of immigration in order to stop islamisation.

Welfare, social and eco themes

Social and environmental issues are two other topics often mentioned by the candidate parties. ČSSD is usually the leading party emphasizing the welfare state policy and measures supporting it. Social issues such as equality of opportunity are also an important part of the election platform of the Christian Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (Křesťanská a demokratická unie – Československá strana lidová, KDU-CSL), led by the former deputy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavel Svoboda. In this election, the coalition is focusing on the demographic situation in the EU and support for families, and attempts to push cheaper products that are necessary for young families with kids, such as children’s food and diapers. It claims that Europe is dying out, and it is therefore vital to increase the birthrate and support families. In practice, the party plans to lobby the EU to grant the Czech Republic an exception that lowers the VAT rate on the aforementioned products. The Greens will be led in the EP elections by their chairman, Ondřej Liška. They want to focus on the support of local, high quality food production in order to prevent the import of industrially produced food, as well as to indicate clearly which food is GMO. The Greens also intend to push their traditional agenda of “containing” nuclear energy development and stressing alternative sources of energy. The Pirate Party (Pirátská strana) wants to protect freedom of the internet and human rights, and to improve the level of information openness for European citizens. TOP09, represented by former member of the Board of Governors of the Czech National Bank Luděk Niedermayer and former Minister of Justice Jiří Pospíšil (who was then a member of ODS), has an agenda focused on clear and comprehensible European legislation and a safe, unified financial market. The candidates of the KSČM want to focus on improving the Czech Republic’s ability to draw on EU funds.

Conclusion

The initial phase of the EP electoral “grey” campaign has showed neither refreshingly new approaches, nor surprising or unexpected moments, if not counting the publicized quarrels between party candidates (ČSSD, ANO2011) about their positions on the candidate lists. Traditional parties have focused on general areas such as the economy, social issues and ecology, “copying” their agendas from the NP elections. However, two potentially controversial topics have been put forward – euro adoption and immigration.

List of political parties running for the EP elections in Czech Republic:

Aktiv nezávislých občanů
ANO 2011
Antibursík – STOP ekoteroru
Česká pirátská strana
Česká strana národně sociální
Česká strana regionů
Česká strana sociálně demokratická
Česká Suverenita
Československá strana socialistická
Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti – NE diktátu Bruselu!
evropani.cz
Fair play – HNPD
Hnutí sociálně slabých
Klub angažovaných nestraníků
Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy
Komunistická strana Československa
Koruna Česká (monarchistická strana Čech, Moravy a Slezska)
Křesťanská a demokratická unie – Československá strana lidová
LEV 21 – Národní socialisté
Liberálně ekologická strana
Moravané
NE Bruselu – Národní demokracie
Občané 2011
Občanská demokratická strana
Občanská konzervativní strana
Republika
Republikánská strana Čech, Moravy a Slezska
Romská demokratická strana
SNK Evropští demokraté
Strana práce a Nespokojení občané!
Strana rovných příležitostí
Strana svobodných občanů
Strana zdravého rozumu – Nechceme euro – za Evropu svobodných států
Strana zelených
TOP09 a Starostové
Úsvit přímé demokracie Tomia Okamury
Věci veřejné
VIZE 2014
Volte Pravý blok
Zdeněk Jirsa

Zdeněk Jirsa

is member of the demagog.cz team, graduated in International relations at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno and currently studies political science and religious studies at the Masaryk University.