Although the liberal democrats won, the word ‘liberal’ is still not popular in Czechia [Party Co-Op Series]

Zsolt Enyedi in conversation with Krystof Dolezal, political scientist and strategist, about party cooperation in Czechia during the 2021 parliamentary elections. They discuss the rationales behind the establishment of the two opposition blocks, the reasons for their respective levels of success, and the lessons that can be drawn from Czech party cooperation.

Zsolt Enyedi: Welcome to the Party Cooperation podcast. In the last decade, Czech party politics was dominated by ANO 2011, the party of Andrej Babiš. Communists, the Social Democrats and the radical right had an ambivalent position vis a vis ANO, while the rest of the parties were opposed to it. But because the latter parties constitute five distinct political forces representing different values and social interests, one could not take their cooperation for granted. Eventually, prior to the 2021 elections, these parties clustered into two alliances. The Civic Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats and TOP 09 formed SPOLU, meaning Together, while the Pirates aligned with the party of Mayors. The electoral campaign was successful, and since December 2021, these two alliances collaborate in a coalition government. The person who will help me to understand the process is Krystof Dolezal, a political scientist who worked as an analyst and strategist for the Christian Democratic Party and served in the central campaign team of the coalition SPOLU. 

The current government is composed of five political forces the Civic Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats, TOP 09, the Pirates and the Mayors. What are the relevant political differences between them?

Krystof Dolezal:  I think we need to bear in mind that the political system in Czech Republic is very much polarized. If I simplify the conflict, on one side, we have ANO of Andrej Babiš, the Communist Party and the Social Democrats, and on the other side, we had the opposition forces, the parties that eventually formed the electoral alliances. In terms of the coalition SPOLU, the differences are not that huge. We could say that Civic Democrats would have a much more neoliberal position in terms of market economy than TOP 09, while Christian Democrats would feel more comfortable in terms of social market economy and much more socially and culturally conservative unlike TOP 09 that used to be perceived as one of the most progressive forces in the party system since 2010.

However, the Coalition of Mayors and Pirates would be considered as progressive liberal, while Pirates would be considered as a party of young voters with very much Western orientation, and Mayors would be plain vanilla, a centrist political party that was able in recent years to supplement Christian Democrats in the centrist position and play the dominant role in the centre of the political spectrum.

You described the different character of these five parties, but eventually they came together into two alliances. How did it happen? Why did it happen and why exactly these two alliances?

From 2018, there were some talks that these parties should come together and form coalitions. There were negotiations amongst Mayors, TOP 09, Christian Democrats and Civic Democrats because they share, let’s say centre-right/right-wing orientation. Also, what we need to bear in mind is that Mayors, TOP 09 and Christian Democrats were very much interested in forming a coalition based on the electoral forecasting. They all had around five per cent of the vote since 2017, and so it was very much in their interest to form a coalition so that they can enter parliament in 2021. While of course, Civic Democrats wanted to return to the government since Petr Fiala (current Prime Minister) served for since 2014 as a party leader, and he needed to get a governmental position in order to maintain his leadership.

The Pirates and Mayors were really successful at the beginning of 2021 due to the widespread pandemic, lockdowns, and they were able to mobilize dissatisfied non-voters. But these voters left the coalition during the year when the pandemic was a little bit over and new issues arose. The core challenge of these elections was to mobilize the non-voters, only two or three percent that’s enough. And that’s where SPOLU made the difference.

Is there a tradition of party cooperation in Czechia? Were there examples of similar sort of pre-electoral cooperation?

Mayors were on the electoral lists of TOP 09 in two elections. And there was a big experience for the Christian Democrats around 2000, when they formed the so-called Four-Coalition, a coalition of centrist parties. So, there is experience, but it is not a widespread phenomenon.

I guess that’s partly because the Czech electoral system does not necessitate the development of large, broad alliances, but it’s also not a perfectly proportional system, either. So how do the electoral system’s rules influence the format of cooperation?

It was one of the main reasons why the small parties wanted to form coalitions because the party system punishes the small parties if they, let’s say, have five or six per cent. They used to need at least 40,000 votes to turn it into a seat in the Parliament. While the large parties such as ANO that had around 30% in 2017 percent needed only 19,000 votes. So, a group of senators in 2017 filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court, arguing precisely that the small parties are underrepresented, and they questioned the threshold (the percent of votes needed for a party or coalition to enter Parliament) for coalitions:10 percent for two parties, 15 percent for three parties.  These were the main institutional obstacles for coalitions to emerge.

Was it obvious that both alliances will be successful in getting enough votes to enter Parliament?  

At the beginning, it was a problem for SPOLU, because some of the polls showed that the coalition would get around 15 or 16 percent, so there was some uncertainty, but after a little while, the coalition secured its position around 20 percent. 

When you consider the rules of party finance, how electoral campaigns are organized and general institutional aspect of the electoral process, what would you say are the forms of party cooperation encouraged or discouraged by the Czech institutional environment?

There were two substantial institutional changes. First, President Zeman announced the elections date already at the end of December 2020, which meant that from then on, until October (when the elections took place), all the spending of the parties would be considered as spending for the elections, so they had to fit into a 90 million Czech crowns budget. This is not a common practice, as the President has usually announced the elections date three or four months beforehand. Thus, in this situation, the coalitions couldn’t design any pre-campaigns, invest in human resources, etc. so it was a huge constraint in terms of finances.  

The second change was also important: in January 2021 the Constitutional Court suddenly judged that the complaint of the senators from 2017 was legitimate and that the parliament must come up with new Electoral Law, which would be more proportional and comply fully with the right to vote. What the new electoral law did is that it changed the second recount of the vote. Imagine you have a constituency that distribute four mandates. In the old electoral system, the rest of the votes – that was not distributed, were basically lost. In the new system, however, these votes go for the national wide recount, where they are distributed and potentially help the small parties. Also, the threshold for the coalition was changed (from 10 to 8 percent for two parties and from 15 to 11 for three parties).

So the system became more accommodative, more open to small parties, which takes away some of the rationale for forming pre-electoral alliances?

ExactlyIt was, of course, an argument of many prominent politicians from within the parties who were not happy about the coalitions and argued for building independent labels, but it was mostly the case in the coalition SPOLU, which wasn’t doing that great in the opinion polls at the beginning, while Pirates and Mayors were enjoying support around 25 to 30 percent. However, we had to come up with a different justification for the coalition: we had the poorly managed pandemic, we had eight years of Babiš in government supported by Communists and sometimes the far right, so there were a lot of reasons to argue for the coalition, basically for a change of the political style and removal of the Babiš populist government.

You mentioned electoral polls. Did the parties measure whether the structure of alliances will bring new voters? Did they try to compare the two scenarios, that is running alone or running in alliance with each other? And in general, what is the role of electoral polls in shaping cooperation?

I would say that this was a political decision, although I can admit that Christian Democrats had electoral models and saw that it did not look good. We knew that we were going into a tricky business.

You mean that the SPOLU label was not more successful than the separate Christian Democratic label?

I can speak only for Christian Democrats. We saw already in summer 2020 that the coalition models didn’t look very good, that we were losing lots of votes and we wouldn’t even attain a simple sum of the individual parties. The coalition would not even have 20 percent. These models were later certified in the polls we did with the already existent SPOLU at the end of November 2020. In the end, it was a political decision and there was nowhere else to go. Imagine, for instance, if Christian Democrats, would run alone and all other political parties would align, it would put Christian Democrats in a very tricky position because maybe they wouldn’t even make the five percent threshold. So, the coalition was the only game in town.

From then on, you started investing in the SPOLU label. And I guess that meant that you had to redesign the party’s image and adopt the branding that was designed particularly for this election. How successful was that process?

That was a very long process. There were three parties with quite independent background, with legacies, with traditions and, of course, with several animosities against each other. For instance, TOP 09 was  established by a former Christian Democratic leader and many other Christian Democrats, and Christian Democrats had problems with Civic Democrats who represent the party members who remember the 1990spolitical corruption. And unlike Pirates and Mayors who kept their labels, their identities, this coalition couldn’t do the same because it consisted of three parties, so we needed to come up with something else. SPOLU (meaning Together) was basically copied from one of the Slovak labels and it took months before the electorate started to recognise this new label and started to perceive that there is a new project.

How extensive was the pre-electoral cooperation? Did the parties share resources, know how, electorally relevant information, donations, campaign infrastructure, media?

From what I know from working on the analytics and strategy, we share the best practices and the strategies. We knew that we didn’t overlap that much in terms of the electorate, so you always know different ways how to address your own audience. We had lots of data and experiences with different tactics, door to door campaigns, social media marketing, etc., and we shared these practices and resources quite openly. 

There is a large degree of complementarity between the three parties that make up SPOLU. But what is the relationship between SPOLU and the Pirates and the Mayors, the two alliances? Did they complement each other or did they actually compete with each other during the campaign?

As I said in the beginning of our conversation, the Czech political system is quite polarised, which meant, that these two coalitions were competing over the same electorate. There were non-voters and voters that were undecided, and they decided in the last months or last weeks before the elections. In the last months, the coalition SPOLU developed a campaign targeting voters who were disenchanted with the Mayors. The campaign was also very successful in mobilizing voters from rich regions with a medium income, high education, self-employed, teachers, and state employees.

When you had to decide about the positions on the lists, on what basis have you allocated the positions to party? Did you look at opinion polls? Did you consider the bargaining position of the individual parties? What was the guiding principle?

There were negotiations over how to choose. In the end, the parties decided to look at the elections in 2017 and distribute the positions on the electoral list accordingly. The coalition hoped for sixty-five mandates and the proportion amongst the parties was as follows: the Civic Democrats would get fifty-five percent, Christian Democrats twenty five percent, and TOP 09 twenty percent of the positions that are the most likely to be successful (i.e. the first positions). There were tensions because some parties thought it would be nice to put candidates who are well-known or regionally recognized on let’s say the 15th position, hoping that they will jump because in the Czech electoral system, voters can use four preferential votes and thus can easily mix up the whole candidacy list. There was a strict direction from the central electoral team forbidding any nudging for the preferential votes. The focus was on the joint label, but within the alliance, the positions were distributed based on opinion polls and previous elections.

As you mentioned, you have the possibility to express your personal preferences in the Czech system. The party bosses may not always foresee to what extent that happens, and to what extent the ratio that is envisaged by them between the parties will be respected by the voters, or to what extent the outcome will be in line with the pre-electoral agreement. So how was it in this election case?

Precisely, the outcome was surprising. Maybe I will start with Mayors because that was the biggest twist no one expected. The Pirates were the dominant force within the coalition, and they invested the most in terms of finances and other resources. But in the end, the whole coalition received thirty-seven mandates, while the Mayors received thirty-three and Pirates only four mandates, so it was a complete surprise and it is precisely because of the preferential votes. What happened was that the Mayors were able to mobilize people from middle-sized towns who are their core voters, and they used their preferential votes very strategically, so they would only give preferential votes to the first five or six candidates on the candidacy list. While the Pirate voters were not using the possibility of preferential vote as much, and if they did, they did not do it strategically, so they would go all over the place.

As for SPOLU, the biggest surprise were the Christian Democrats, precisely because they are locally and regionally very strong. So in this sense, Christian Democrats gain seven or eight more mandates than it was expected at the expense of Civic Democrats.

For some of the parties, particularly for the Pirates, then this was a rather bitter experience. Will they continue in these alliances?

What we know from the media, Pirates and Mayors are not that keen on continuing in this cooperation. There was some inter-coalition negotiation whether the Mayors were breaking the coalition agreement by somehow secretly incentivizing their voters to use preferential votes, so I think there are strong animosities between these two parties nowadays. Nonetheless, they are still in the government together, but you cannot see such a coherence as you can see in the coalition SPOLU, which, as the Prime Minister Fiala said recently, wants to continue for the next eight years to bring changes.

Was ever the idea of party merger discussed within SPOLU?

No, but as you can see, the Civic Democrats are the strongest party on the right side of the political spectrum. It would be, I think, in their utmost interest to hegemonize the other two small parties as they already did in the 1990s with another Christian Democratic Party, so I wouldn’t be surprised. But of course, you couldn’t expect that from TOP 09 or Christian Democrats, because the party leadership would lose the space for decision making.

What about the party finance system looking from that angle, is it easy for parties to cooperate? Are they encouraged to do so, or there are actually obstacles in front of cooperation?

That was a tricky part, of course, because it’s not always about money, but very often it is. And I think in this case, the situation was complicated by the fact that the coalitions can spend only 90 million Czech crowns over the course of the campaign which equals the spending of an individual political party.

I can speak only about SPOLU: the finances were divided in a similar way as the mandates. So, fifty-five, twenty-five and twenty. The electoral alliance in Czech Republic does not have a legal entity, so every party took care of their own money and then transfer the money between each other. But there was no budget for the coalition. And it is also tricky that the coalition will not receive double or triple the amount of the state subsidy once it enters the parliament. Usually in the Czech Republic, if a political party gets more than five percent of the vote, it receives a state subsidy of 10 million Czech crowns every year. But in the current situation these 10 million were distributed amongst these three parties. Let’s say that the funding system does not encourage political parties to create coalitions.

Another way in which the coalition SPOLU curtailed the preferential votes was that the state subsidies that parties receive for every mandate, were distributed according to the same key as the positions on candidacy lists. 

If I understand well, as a party g running as part of a coalition, you can spend significantly less in an electoral campaign. In case of SPOLU the overall spending was only the third of what could have been without the coalition. Then you really must look at the results: you had to spend a considerable amount of energy on cooperation, you lost some financial resources. Does it really make sense to form such a coalition?

I would also add to the financial issues that in the autumn 2021 a newly established Institute for Support of Liberal Democracy announced that it would give five million Czech crowns to each party that entered an electoral coalition while having a pro-liberal democratic program. This was one benefit that these parties could enjoy. 

However, now these parties have majority in the parliament, so they can easily change all these constraints.

This donation shows two things; one, that you had a wealthy player who was able to mobilize resources in favour of an alliance. Second, it shows that the issue of liberal democracy was seen as a significant electoral issue so the cause of defending liberal democracy was used to explain and justify the broad cooperation across parties.

I wouldn’t call it liberal democracy, because amongst the coalition SPOLU and amongst the coalition of Mayors and Pirates, the word liberal is still not very popular, so you would definitely talk about parliamentary democracy, constitutional order, rule of law, power division, European orientation, etc.

What were the most contentious programmatic or personal issues and how were these tensions taken care of?

I think the negotiations over the programme were quite consensual, and if there would be some profound differences, it was decided that they would be put aside so we would not talk about them for the next four years. Some of the contentious points were the introduction of the Euro. That’s a huge problem for Civic Democrats, but TOP 09 and Christian Democrats are long standing advocates of the Euro. Another issue was the attitude towards the environment, on which Civic Democrats are conservative, unlike TOP 09 or Christian Democrats. 

Were there any issues where two of the parties imposed their will on the third one?

Only in some minor issues. A scandal emerged while one of the young and very promising candidates from TOP 09 was about to launch the campaign for young people, he was accused of sexual abuse. So, of course, other two parties pushed the TOP 09 to force him to step down. There were also some unfortunate announcements that had to be changed after the intervention one of the otherparties, but it wasn’t something that would be crucial. There was some contestation of the candidacy lists when a certain party saw that a so-called jumper was installed at the end of the list, but it was certain that he would end up first or second.

What I found perhaps the most problematic was the non-communication in some sense, that some of the party leaders or employees wanted to do things in their own way, so they didn’t even communicate their intentions with other parties. But that was more of a procedural issue.

If I understand well, there are important differences between the social background of the parties, with TOP 09 being more popular in cities, particularly in Prague, and the Christian Democrats more popular in rural areas. To what extent did these differences helped the alliance?

Definitely it helped because these parties didn’t overlap that much.TOP 09 scored in the big cities, in Prague mostly, maybe also in South Bohemia, Civic Democrats in big cities and mid-large cities, and Christian Democrats in the rural areas and small towns in the eastern part of Czech Republic and the coalition shared voters in terms of sociodemographic, etc. So, the coalition was not speaking to that different audience, but definitely in terms of the geographical distribution, you’re right.

We are talking here about three separate party organizations. They have their own decision-making bodies, to what extent did the three organizations came together and to what extent did the activists came together during the process? Was there some sort of regular interaction? Did you feel that you participated in a joint movement? Was there some tendency towards the establishment of a common identity?

I think definitely at the central level, which I was part of, it decided upon the main issues such as visuals, graphics, the whole strategy, the events, etc. These decisions were binding for the regional electoral teams that had to respect these issues and, of course, implement these directions in the given context and to format the campaign that it can be directed and personalised. But I wouldn’t say it was a movement with a common identity, I don’t think anyone would think about it in this way. But you had to show that you are the strongest opponent of Babiš and that you can beat him.

What SPOLU did for instance, was the nation-wide door to door campaign, which was unprecedented in the Czech Republic, and it showed the strength of the party alliance. What also helped the coalition a lot was the poor campaign of Andrej Babiš, who was occupied by attacking Pirates for being neo-Marxist, pro-immigrant, progressive, someone who wanted destroy the sovereignty of the Czech state, and he forgot about SPOLU, so it could grew in the shadow of Pirates.

Imagine that tomorrow the Mayors or the Pirates or the Social Democrats knock on your door and ask for membership in this alliance, what sort of response they can expect? 

Idon’t think that SPOLU or Pirates or Mayor could ever establish a coalition with Social Democrats because now these parties can exploit the standard leftist topics and attract leftist voters in a situation when the Social Democrats are not in the parliament.

In collaboration with Karen Culver

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