Jan Macháček


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Czech Business Weekly

Punishment at the polls and the Communist kingmakers

31. 12. 2007
The news first came in a poll from STEM, before being hammered home by a poll from the Center for Public Opinion Research (CVVM).

The opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) have pulled almost 10 percent ahead of senior government coalition partner, the Civic Democrats (ODS), with around 34 percent of voter support.

It is very interesting to look into how politicians are explaining this development. ODS people, such as Petr Tluchoř, the head of the party’s club in the Chamber of Deputies, say they do not trust the work of the pollsters and do not believe an ominous trend is materializing. Naturally, they say, there is resentment at the painful reform steps and cuts the government has brought in. But, they add, these were courageous moves and once the positive longer-term results of the reform are clear for all to see, voters will reward the political bravery.

Supporters of the government also claim that while the government decision to push for the American radar station may be unpopular with many, it will eventually be seen as a wise step providing an enduring benefit in the pursuit of national security.

Obviously, the ČSSD offers a starkly different assessment. The negative polls, it says, are the government’s punishment for persevering with amateurish policies, for incompetence and for reforms that only serve the rich.

But let’s try to be a little objective here. The “backpack” of reforms is certainly not “only good for the rich.” Overall, some positive steps are contained within it. Raising the lower rate of value-added tax (VAT) is a step toward having one simple, transparent rate in the future. The introduction of some social security caps, meanwhile, had long been demanded by all foreign investors. The Czech Republic was the last European country to implement the move.

The fees that will apply to visits to the doctor are also very important (even though some observers say they may be unconstitutional). Not in terms of the income stream for the health care system, but as a sort of regulatory impulse to encourage people not to head for the doctor as soon as they feel a tickly cough coming on. It is clear that many, especially older, people in this country often go to see the doctor for social reasons. They take the chance to share some time with a caring human being. But while they might feel it’s something like chatting to the postman or a social worker, they forget the high cost to the public purse of such a visit and any unnecessary prescriptions that result from it.

But whatever the breakthroughs, the ODS’s biggest reform worry is that it has not delivered on its pre-election promises. It pledged a simple tax system—with no loopholes, discounts or relief clauses and a one-page tax form—but did not even attempt to deliver any of it. Overall taxation is going up next year and the Czech Republic has one of the world’s most complicated taxation systems and the most complex system in the European Union. Life is still not easy for anyone, especially not for entrepreneurs.

The next biggest reform threat to the ODS is that taxes are going down for people who earn a lot. This “coincidentally” includes ministers. People have come to regard this as pretty arrogant. The politicians are seen as those whose first priority is to arrange that reforms do not mean anything painful or inconvenient for themselves.

A third trouble is the timing of the reform. The VAT increase comes just as global factors push up food, electricity, gas and oil prices. Reflecting again on the doctor fees, people ask themselves where all this will end.

The ODS is also once again struggling to deal with a perennial problem, namely its perceived aloofness and conceit. The rough manners of ODS leader and Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek are not seen as tolerable.

Winning over the Communists

What kind of impact will the opinion poll trends have on the February presidential vote? A more popular ČSSD could conceivably provide party leader Jiří Paroubek with a stronger negotiating position. It is clear that presidential candidate Jan Švejnar, an “American professor” and liberal economist, cannot alone win over support of the Communists (KSČM). If the Communists were genuine left-wingers they might positively evaluate Švejnar’s academic involvement in addressing poverty and aid for developing countries, and in assessing companies run by workers and Chinese economic reforms. But our Communists are not at all left-wing intellectuals or idealists. Partially, these are people who admire the old totalitarian regime and miss it. Among their numbers are all kinds of extremists and villains, but above all they are political entrepreneurs. So it must be Paroubek, not Švejnar, who convinces them not to vote for Václav Klaus like they did during the last presidential vote. A strong Paroubek can promise a lot. It is up to him to ready the strategy and negotiating tactics.

Also on his mind should be how to deal with the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), or lidovci, as they are called. It is a tradition of this party to be in two coalitions. One involves the real government, the other involves those topping the polls. The same approach was in evidence under the previous coalition. With ČSSD support in free fall and the then-Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek out of the Cabinet, KDU-ČSL began cooperating with the then-opposition ODS.

The beginnings of such a modus operandi are again noticeable. Just before the holidays, the KDU-ČSL voted that in six months it will evaluate the doctor payments. If it becomes dissatisfied, it could pull its support from the plan. An ascendant ČSSD might sway the KDU-ČSL’s presidential vote.

But things could also work out very differently. If the Communists think the ČSSD is becoming too strong, there could be a war on the left like during the previous election for president. There is no doubt that if the ČSSD fails to place Švejnar in the Castle, its poll numbers will fall again, but, on the other hand, it will also damage the Communists’ chances of ever becoming the Social Democrats’ partners on the left.

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