Changing Rules Won't Eliminate the Problem
There has been much discussion of late about changing the electoral system of the Parliament. The latest suggestion has come from the ranks of US, whose leaders are now calling on the lower house (PS) to adopt a first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and the Senate to adopt a system of proportional representation (PR). By these changes, Ruml seeks a "dvoubarevná Poslanecká sněmovna a pestrý Senát". This complete reversal of the current systems in these two legislative bodies is rejected by the Social Democrats who have called instead for a raise in the five- percent threshold currently needed for a party's entry into the Lower House.
Though their proposals differ, both parties and their aligned commentators are supporting these changes for precisely the same reason. Both sides talk about increasing the "stability" of the political situation in the Republic and about reducing the representation of extremist parties. The US proposal would keep them out by overriding their minority views at the ballot box, and the CSSD option would keep them out by absorbing their votes after the counting. In effect, both parties are hungrily eyeing that 15-20% of voters who vote for the extremists, and they hope that by side-lining the extremists, their parties will, one way or another, benefit from their votes.
Neither solution is very sensible because they both oversimplify the complexities of electoral systems in their justifications for changes and, more importantly, because they fail to get to the heart of the problem. Drowning out the extremist vote and further ostracising minority views will not eliminate those minority views.
The superficial justifications for the US proposal are easily punctured. Vladimir Mlynar, for example, has said:
"Většinový systém obecně posiluje vazbu poslanec - volič, jednoznačně eliminuje extrémisty z vlivu na exekutivu, to znamená nikoli z politického života, ale z praktického vlivu na exekutivu."
This myth is easily dispelled with an example from the USA where FPTP is used in elections for president and for both houses of Congress where the exalted "dvoubarevna" legislature is an uncomfortable reality in the form of a complete duopoly of Democratic and Republican parties. Far from being independent of extremists, these mega-parties often become tools of extremist values. Radical anti-abortionists in the USA, for example, in exchange for their endorsement demand that the Republican Party maintains a firm anti-abortion stance, and this the Republican Party did through its 12 years of holding the highest executive office. In the USA, where well over 80% of Americans feel that abortion should be the woman's choice alone, such hard-line anti-abortion position is certainly a minority view, and yet the executive branch of government felt itself hostage to it for more than a decade.
In general, FPTP is no panacea. It could mean that the Czech Republic ends up with a system like the US where neither of the two choices attract much enthusiasm. Most Americans who bother to vote complain that they must "hold their nose" when voting for Party X. Very few really support parties whole-heartedly. In any case FPTP does not do much for bolstering that "civil society" that so many commentators seem to promote for the Czech Republic, because most Americans don't even bother to vote. FPTP is no simple recipe for good citizenship.
What's more, many Americans see an entrenched two-party system as only slightly better than a one-party system, because the possibility for new ideas to reach the legislature is almost nil. This may seem absurd to people who have actually lived under a one-party system, but one question arising from this train of thought is worth considering: Does anyone really want a political system in which perhaps only US and CSSD will be the only two political options for the all-important PS? Take it from American experience, a "dvoubarevny" parliament is no solution.
This has become increasing obvious here in the UK, where FPTP has come in for a great amount of criticism from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats who were both kept out of power for 18 years because of this system. With this in mind, the ruling Labour Party has decided to have a PR system in the new Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, for example, and there is active discussion about introducing PR at Westminster.
Of course, the CSSD proposal to raise the parliamentary threshold is equally flawed. I'm sure that with CSSD currently polling over 20%, that party would like nothing more than to raise the threshold to about 15%, but that's neither fair nor reasonable. But in any case, the higher the threshold is raised, the more votes will be transferred to larger parties and the less representative the system becomes. Like US, CSSD's proposal is no solution to the real problem at the heart of the political malaise in the Czech Republic.
The real problem is alienation with the current system. Some people simply do not feel a part of the great changes that society has undergone in recent years. In fact, 15-20% of the citizens of the Czech Republic feel so alienated from the current system that they vote for parties that seem to want to destroy that system. No matter how one would alter the electoral rules, those people and those views are not going to go away.
The Czech Republic is a society recovering from great upheaval, and subsequently the young country has a myriad of choices and voices before it. People need to keep these choices open, and the myriad of voices must have an outlet for their expression. That outlet for public expression is the institution of the political party.
"Simply" changing the electoral system may weaken extremist parties in the Czech Republic, but it will not get rid of extremist viewpoints. People who now vote for the Republicans and Communists will not disappear. Knowing this, the politicians of any new super-parties will be aiming for their vote, and they will have to meet these people with suitable rhetoric. Extremist views won't fade away; they may, like the anti-abortionists in the US Republican Party, simply blend into the super-parties and show their ugly heads from time to time to the embarrassment of party leaderships.
Another darker possibility is that no blending occurs and the extremist viewpoints will find expression only outside the political system. That 15-20% of the population might feel even more isolated and alienated from society, and denied peaceful means of expression on the floor of the all-important PS, they may take to more radical measures. This could include violence. After all, people who do not feel included in a system which rules over them, will act to break apart that system by whatever means available. Put bluntly, it is better to have Sladek representing his crackpots relatively civilly on the floor of the Parliament than to have the crackpots outside the Parliament throwing petrol bombs.
Better than either of these two options, however, and better than overhauling the Constitution would be the simplest option: open a dialog with these people. Politicians need to find out why people are alienated and voting for Sladek and the Communists. In this Havel should have a key role.
The President could play his part by talking to the discontents' representatives in formal and open meetings and trying to understand why people are voting for them. It should be Havel who makes the first move in this regard, because if any one party made such approaches in the present climate, they would be branded as friends of the extremists by the other parties and would likely end up ostracised just like them. Havel should meet with Sladek and Grebenicek and gently coax them into the realm of political decency. It's not so unreasonable to expect this. After all, Havel sat down at the negotiating table with far more evil people in 1989.
It should be obvious to everyone that if there was actually some contact with alienated citizens and if more mainstream politicians could reach out to them, those people might not feel so alienated. Over time they might feel a part of the system and eventually, they would want to work to maintain it. If they continue to be kept out, or finally, locked out completely with these proposed changes to the electoral system, the alienated won't go away. They will only hate the system more.