Experiences and Problems with Proportional Voting System in the Czech Republic

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One of the most important factors in shaping country’s political system is the electoral system. It determines the number of relevant political parties and how they work internally. This article will discuss the workings of the proportional voting system for the lower chamber of Czech Parliament1 and its impact on the Czech political system.

In the Czech Republic, a party list proportional system was chosen after some discussions in early 1990s. This may seem a little odd from a political science standpoint, since a proportional representation (PR) is usually recommended for countries with ethnically or religiously diverse population – the Czech Republic has neither2. The PR was chosen for mainly historical reasons as this is the system that was in place during the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) and, to be honest, it does not perform ideally. Here are 7 points sor such conclusions:

1. Simplicity: One of the advantages is simplicity for voters, who can only vote for 1 party. Party lists that get at least 5 %3 of votes countrywide are eligible for seats. The seats are distributed by the D´Hondt method4 according to votes received in each constituency, which does not bring any big pro – a performance in particular constituencies can fundamentally influent the final result of election.

2. Constituencies: Czech Republic is divided into 14 constituencies (kraj – region) that are based on the administrative division of the country. This means that significant differences in population exist among constituencies (the most populous one has more than 1, 25 million of inhabitants, the least populous one only 0, 31 million) and also some socioeconomic factors differ. Since the number of seats each constituency receives is based on the number of votes cast in the constituency during the election, this can lead to quite disproportional results. For example, during the 2006 election, the Green Party received no seats in one of the constituencies despite receiving almost 10 % of votes there. This lead to a complaint to the Constitutional Court (eventually refused). While there has been very noticeable regional polarization some years ago with the right wing parties winning Bohemia and left of center parties winning in Moravia and Silesia, this cleavage has become much less relevant with the collapse of the right wing parties. Voter identification is the reverse of what it is in Western Europe, big cities tend to vote for the right wing and countryside for the left wing.

3. Competition: No party has ever come close to having a majority5. Therefore, coalition governments are the norm in the Czech Republic. The last election saw both center right parties marginalized, together they won less than 20 % of the vote. The biggest center left party has also seen its support decrease to around 20 % of the vote6. The void has been filled by populist parties with no clear ideological identification. Those parties run against traditional politics but remain silent how to achieve their goals.

4. Communists: Another problem has been the existence of an unreformed communistic party (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy) with which all other parliamentary parties have refused to cooperate on the official level. However, this party blocks about 30- 40 seats in every election period which has led to quite ideologically diverse coalitions. To make matters even worse, these coalitions were not only ideologically diverse, they also had only the slightest majority (around 101/200) in the lower chamber.

5. Unstability: The point mentioned above systematically generates weak and unstable governments – during 24 years, we have had 13 governments with 11 different prime ministers. Conflicts in the coalition escalated twice to such a degree that a caretaker (supposedly) apolitical government had to be installed. Prime ministers are usually colorless, since they can only exercise real control over ministers coming from their own party and even this authority is shaky at best since most parties7 are very decentralized.

6. Responsibility: Another very negative effect of coalitions is the diffusion of responsibility. Pre-election manifestos are worthless pieces of paper since any attempt to hold a party to responsibility is deflected by claiming that the party would like to do what they promised, but their coalition partners would not let them. Voters have very limited ability to hold individuals to account too. Voters can circle up to 4 names on the party list and if at least 5 % of people voting for the same party do so, these candidates are moved up the list. This can bar few very unpopular candidates from parliament, but does not result in any meaningful changes in the big pictures. This also means that is relatively easy to start new parties, since all you need is a couple of “faces” to fill the pre-election posters. In fact, there has been at least one new party in parliament after every election so far.

7. Political decentralization: Another quite negative aspect is the decentralization of parties which is largely the result of most parties organizing themselves on regional basis. These regional party cells have become very important because of their fundraising (both legal and illegal8) capabilities. As a result, most established parties have essentially been divided into fiefdoms headed by rent-seeking regional bosses.

Naturally PR is only a contributing factor in all the things listed in this article, but it is an important one. That is not to say the country would be better off with some kind of majority voting system. But it is clear that PR is not the best electoral system as though by many activists in countries with a different voting system. The lack of accountability, the weak coalitions and fractured parties are something that will almost certainly plague Czech politics for years to come. Sadly, I do not see any realistic solution to this malaise.

1 The upper chamber, Senate is elected in single seat constituencies but is much less powerful.

2 Of the people that filled in their nationality in the latest statistical survey, about 90 % have chosen Czech, 5 % Moravian.

3 For electoral coalitions it is 5 % for each party up to 20 %. Needless to say, this means that electoral coalitions are not relevant in Czech Republic.

4 The number of votes received is divided by the number of seats received so far + 1 until all seats in the constituency are distributed. This favors the bigger parties slightly.

5 The most seats received were 81 of ODS in 2006.

6 This is a dramatic reversal of fortunes – just ten years ago the two biggest parties had almost 70 % of the vote.

7 The most obvious exception is ANO which seems to be party of one man so far.

8 Several regional heads are beeing prosecuted for corruption at the moment.

Michal Hejl
Liberalni Institute