Mass abstentions in Czech elections
Only one voter in five turned out on Sunday November 19 for the second and final round of elections to the Senate, the upper house of the Czech Republic's Parliament, where a third of the 81 seats were being contested. The previous Sunday, two-thirds of the voters stayed away from the first round of the Senate elections and also from the first statewide elections to 13 newly created regional councils, which were held on the same day. The low turnout is a measure of the lack of confidence of the Czech people in their country's post-1989 bourgeois "democratic" institutions. As Vaclav Vertelar wrote in the Communist Party's daily Halo Noviny: "Citizens are not interested in jokey but vacuous election slogans. "They want a concrete, accountable programme which will create more jobs, give them rising real incomes, homes they can afford, good-quality health care and their children an education, fight crime, prevent banks and savings institutions from ripping them off, etc." The low turnout was also a slap in the face for ex-Premier Vaclav Klaus's right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the four-Party Coalition (an electoral alliance of four smaller parties — the right-wing fundamentalist Freedom Union, Democratic Union and Civic Democratic Association and the centre-right Christian Democrats). Previously bitter enemies (because of the ODS's "tolerance" of the Czech Republic's minority Social Democratic government), the Coalition and the ODS buried their hatchets and joined forces after the first round of the Senate elections on November 12 in an attempt to stampede voters with a "red scare", following the unexpected success of the Czech Communist Party (KSCM) in getting eight of its candidates through to the second round. The result comes as the Czech people experience the full fruits of the restoration of capitalism after 1989. They are confronted by a possible third economic crisis (as evidenced by the dramatic increase in the country's foreign trade deficit and rising inflation), mass unemployment in key industrial areas in North Bohemia and North Moravia, widespread job insecurity, and IMF/World Bank/EU-ordered cuts in public spending. The Communists' success in the first round of the Senate elections was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than their success in the elections to the new regional councils, where they won 21 percent of the vote (compared with 11 percent at the 1998 general election) and 23.8 percent of the 675 seats. This is because, in contrast to the proportional representation system used in the regional elections, the elections to the Senate were decided on the basis of a modified version of the single-member constituency, first-past- the-post system, a system designed to advantage the two largest parties in the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies), currently the allied Social Democrats and ODS. In the event, none of the Communist Party's eight candidates in the second round won, and the only retiring Communist Senator lost his seat leaving the party with just three seats in the upper house. The main reason for this was that, while the right was able to unite against the "red threat", the Social Democrats again refused to work with the Communists in a full-blown national alliance against the right. The ruling Social Democrats were the main losers, finishing third in the regional council elections with 15 percent of the vote and 111 of the 675 seats. In the Senate they lost eight seats while the right-wing four-Party Coalition gained 11 additional seats, giving them a total of 39 Senators out of 81, as against the ODS's 22, the Social Democrats' 15 and the Communists' 3. The remaining two seats are held by independents.
* * *Acknowledgements Ken Biggs, POSTMARK PRAGUE