Electoral System Reform in the Czech Republic

By Bures, Jan | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Electoral System Reform in the Czech Republic


Bures, Jan, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


We can see throughout all of Eastern Europe, and especially in countries with majoritarian electoral systems, a tendency to build systems of personal power and limit the standard rules of democracy and constitutional government.

Discussions about the need (possibly radical) to change the electoral system in the Czech Republic have been ongoing since 1996, when the existing stable coalition government of Vaclav Klaus began to crumble. The much admired stability during this period was, however, more of an anomaly. It was a product of the Civic Democrat's (ODS) dominant status as the main successor of the Civic Forum (Obeanske forum), as the declared guarantor of the economic reform (voters were thereby oriented more to the right), and scattered parliamentary opposition. As the citizens' political interests were gradually defined in accordance with newly created splinter groups, socio-economic in particular, voter preferences became more clearly differentiated. Support for the Social Democratic Party (ESSD), the left-of-centre opposition, saw a significant increase in support. This shift explains, in part, the inability of the government to create stable coalitions. The result is that the Czech government has been forced to depend on minimum majorities in the parliament or even rule in the minority. These situations have created the main obstacles to realizing fundamental social reforms.

A RADICAL SOLUTION ACCORDING TO THE ODS

To remedy this situation, politicians and correspondents (mainly right-wing) would like to introduce a major change in the electoral system. More precisely, they support the most radical option of electoral reform: a winner-takes-all majoritarian system. Let us bear in mind that this is the most attractive system due to its simplicity, which is based (in the logic of Anglo-Saxon majoritarian philosophy) on the principle that the absolute winner in an electoral district is the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes. The advocates of this system specifically emphasize its potential to create governmental stability. This assertion draws examples from Great Britain and the United States where there exist a comfortable majority of one of two main political parties in parliament. In contrast, they point out the "disadvantages" of the proportional system, and emphasize its fragmentary effect on parliament, which holds too much power over the oft en "weak" coalition government. The critics of the proportional representation system also condemn the system for cultivating blackmail.

But rooted in electoral theory is the assumption that undisputable truths do not exist. Furthermore, political scientists have cautioned against the aspiration to reform electoral systems in stabilized partisan systems due to the unintended consequences of such reforms.

Even though the winner-takes-all electoral system is valued for its ability to create bipartisanism (a stabilized political system controlled by two strong parties in which one has a clear majority) it is necessary to emphasize that bipartisanism is derived from other significant factors as well: structural historical traditions, socio-economical conditions specific to individual societies, etc. Even contemporary Britain exemplifies the potential for variability within the system--a third party (Liberal Democrats) has risen which "threatens" the dominance of the two main parties and weakens the building of single party majority governments.

A WARNING FROM EASTERN EUROPE

The government's power to act still leads to certain uneasiness in the Czech Republic. In a country that has spent several decades under an authoritarian regime, its politicians are not yet accustomed to their role as public servants, rather than rulers. Throughout all of Eastern Europe, especially in countries where the majoritarian electoral system was established, the tendency to build systems of personal power and limit standard rules of democracy and constitutional government are evident. …

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