Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

2005: no elections, but a crunch year anyway

03. 01. 2005
This year – 2005 – will be the first in a while in which citizens will not have to decide whether to vote and whom to vote for.

Last year we picked members of the European Parliament for the first time, voted in regional elections and once again had a chance to exchange a third of the Senate. Next year we will hold a referendum on the EU constitution and parliamentary, municipal and Senate elections.

So in 2005 voters get a break from the not-very-attractive choice provided by local partisan politics. It is hard to tell, however, if party politicians themselves enjoy this relative respite.

These days politicians treat polls and the results of sociological research with almost the same gravity as the results of real elections, and the postmodern media create headlines out of the constant stream of polls. Long-gone are the days when politicians measured success by electoral results alone. These days they are able to change strategies in reaction to every major poll.

So what can we expect politically, or what will be decided in the sphere of Czech politics this year? Soon we will see if the Social Democrats (ČSSD) manage to stop or reverse their fall. They have every chance to bounce back from their current low standing. The economy is doing quite well, but the government will have to sell this success politically.

If the Social Democrats cannot sell the relatively good shape of the economy, they are is finished. This year we will find out if the communists will replace ČSSD as the dominant party on the left.

ODS, for its part, picked a relatively risky strategy at its recent congress, deciding to follow a harsh euroskeptic path. It is trying to scare voters about the proposed new EU constitution and says it will recommend a vote against it. But most Czech voters support the EU and the new constitution, and that will not dramatically change. If the Social Democrats not only decide to portray themselves as a euro-friendly party but also manage to portray ODS as the party that wants to lead us out of the EU, they might be able to at least maintain their position as a leading left-wing party, if not to win the next parliamentary elections.

They are working on a strategy of moving to the center and stealing voters from ODS. Their eventual success depends on their ability to push through reforms aimed at improving the entrepreneurial environment, by overhauling the bankruptcy code, business registers and bureaucratic procedures.

Still, ČSSD might not be able to seize all these opportunities. It lacks personalities able to properly diagnose the party’s chronic flaws. ČSSD lacks experts in almost every field. It doesn’t have strong visible leaders in the regions and municipalities, and it suffers from constant infighting.

A year and half before parliamentary elections, there is also still a chance to form a new bloc on the right that will manage to exceed the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament. But time is running out. To succeed, it needs the quick cooperation of the European Democrats, independents around Josef Zeleniec, the remains of US-DEU, ODA and other smaller parties, and some new faces. Such a voting bloc could provide a liberal, non-nationalist and pro-European, right-of-center alternative. The first months of this year will determine whether ODS will be the only party on the right for a long time to come.

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