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Czechia: Elections Not Likely to Fulfil Opposition Hopes

This weekend, Czechia faces two sets of elections. First, every municipality will elect their local councillors. And second, in 27 of the country’s 81 senate districts, the first round of the senate elections will be held, filling a third of Czechia’s second chamber in the national parliament. If a candidate manages to get over 50% of the district’s votes in the first round, he will become a senator-elect outright. If this does not happen, the two most successful candidates will advance into the second round run-off which will be held two weeks later, on 7–8 October.

With the energy prices rising in the West, high inflation across the board and a looming winter, it is probably no wonder that the country’s opposition parties are trying to turn the elections away from local issues. Instead, the opposition parties—mainly ANO from the centrist RE faction in the European Parliament and SPD from the right-wing ID faction—would favour emphasis on a ‘referendum’ about the increasingly unpopular five-party coalition government of Petr Fiala (ODS-ECR).

There is some precedent for this. Less important elections like the municipal elections and elections to the overridable senate have been used to display dissatisfaction with the national government before: In 2004, the governing social democratic ČSSD (S&D) received only nine per cent of the vote in European Parliamentary elections—a result which directly led to the fall of the government and a change in ČSSD leadership. A few years later, in 2008, the tables were flipped and the liberal-conservative ODS suffered a decisive defeat in the regional elections as the social democrats managed to win all 13 of the country’s regions. This was mostly viewed as a response to the hugely unpopular decision to introduce individual payment in healthcare which the ODS-led government made some months earlier.

Undoubtedly this is what ANO and SPD are hoping to replicate in upcoming elections. There are however a few issues with this plan. In both of the cases that were mentioned before, elections were on either national or at least regional level. This time, however, elections will be held in each of the country’s 6,254 municipalities separately. ANO—the largest opposition party—is, for example, only running candidates in about half of them, which is a decrease of about a thousand municipalities from the last elections in 2018. Just this fact alone will make it rather hard for ANO to increase their number of councillors and claim any meaningful victory.

That is not the end of their trouble. Because of the vast fragmentation of the country in administrative sense—there are over 6,000 different elections across the country’s municipalities—the focus in local elections is usually set on the few big cities. And with the exception of Ostrava— the third largest city in Czechia—big cities are the type of place where both ANO and SPD consistently achieve their worst results.

Not even the senate elections look particularly promising for the opposition. With the voting system designed the way it is as a two-round runoff system much like the way French Presidents are elected, centrist, moderate candidates win more often than polarising ones. This hurts both ANO and SPD, as the mentioned parties tend to divide the electorate to staunch supporters and more staunch opposers, raising the bar to win single-member districts against a less-disliked opponent. ANO has only seven senators out of the 81 total, with SPD being completely unrepresented. Another factor might be that in the past voters of any of the five governing parties showed their willingness to vote for a candidate of any other of them in the second round of senate elections. ANO and SPD voters, on the other hand, do not seem too keen on doing this to each other.

The opposition parties are aiming to turn the elections into a referendum on the current coalition government. Several factors speak against the chances of success of such a move, starting from the electoral system to the polarising nature of the opposition candidates. Much and more can happen in the elections itself, but the current national government in place does not look to crumble easily in the face of the opposition pressure.

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