Page One of a New Book
With the signing of the agreement between the two largest parties after the recent elections, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) have opened a new chapter in the short political history of the Czech Republic.
Controlling more than two thirds of the seats in Parliament, the two giants on the political field will easily be able to change the Czech constitution to usher in the first-past-the-post electoral system. One cannot imagine a large public protest to stop a change in the constitution here. After all, no such protest was made even when the old country was wiped off the map. A constitutional change by comparison is minor.
A potential protest may come from the Castle, but Havel's position is undercut by the fact that his office has long supported a switch to a first-past-the-post system. It would be difficult for him to suddenly change his opinion on the matter.
With other changes to the constitution, Havel's official position could be reduced to insignificance. Zeman and Klaus have enough old scores to settle with Havel to make this possibility seem likely. Besides, Klaus and Zeman will not want to share their power with any president, Havel or anyone else.
Still, everything the two parties are doing is completely constitutional and acceptable within the framework of "democracy" in the wider sense, so the petty protests of the smaller parties, whose intransigence is largely to blame for the agreement between Zeman and Klaus, will only become a "what if" for historians to muse about in the future.
A Two-Party System is Twice as Good as a One-Party System
So, after forty years of a one-party system and a few years with a multi-party system, the people of the Czech Republic will have a two-party system. Well, the Czech Republic has taken just about every other bad idea from America, so why not this one as well?
Seriously, however, this is not the best move for a young country like the Czech Republic. A first-past-the-post system will constrict politics to a banal bipolar world (maybe tripolar if Ruml and Lux can agree to unite - that is if Ruml can agree with anyone on anything). In such a closed system, new ideas cannot easily come to the surface. It may bring the long sought for "stability", but that term has been grossly overused here lately. Recall that18 years of Husak was also stable. For a complex society undergoing rapid change, A bipolar system will be stultifying.
Rather than repeat myself and explain the reasons why this is so, I would ask the reader to look at my article in BL on 30th June.
Much has been written about the differences between the electoral programmes of CSSD and ODS, and there is general shock that these parties can agree on anything. It isn't too amazing really, because these parties actually have something very important in common: they are both large parties set to benefit from the establishment of a two-party system. Still, there is a fundamental contradiction in this agreement which will lead to its early demise.
ODS would obviously like to get back into government as soon as possible, and for this they have to bring about the fall of CSSD. They will not, however, do this right away, because they want to wait for the installation of the new electoral system, which will bring them votes from Ruml's Freedom Union (US) and some votes from Lux's Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL).
Thus the essential conflict between ODS and CSSD today has less to do with programmes and more to do with time. ODS wants the constitutional change as soon as possible, while CSSD will do everything it can to put it off so as to stay in power longer.
The "opposition agreement" actually addresses this conflict. The constitutional changes must be introduced within 12 months (point seven). This point, clearly a demand of ODS, means that the Czech Republic is very likely to have a first-past-the-post electoral system within a year, and one can thus easily imagine new Parliamentary elections being called soon after.
The constitutional changes, including limitations on the President's powers, will be made with this in mind. The changes will be tailor-made to fit the two parties in what is essentially a pre-election period. This myopic pragmatism is quite worrying on the face of it, but examining it more deeply, and perhaps optimistically, we find that there is some cause for hope.
It is true that the parties want to create a "winner-take-all" electoral system, but somewhere during the negotiations over what that new system will actually look like, both parties will realise that winning the up-coming election is not guaranteed. They will thus seek to install checks and balances in the new political system that allow the opposition to have some voice and perhaps even some power. This type of realisation and the actions it gives rise to are normal phenomena in any multi-sided process of constitution writing.
So, the new two-party system will be an inappropriate contraction of the Czech political world, but it may not be a complete disaster. One footnote to the whole endeavour is that the new system, with only two choices, will be a bit? well, boring.
Political commentators will no longer take joy in calculating possible coalitions. No one will have to track alliances among a multitude of parties. The complexities of debate between half a dozen parties with half a dozen different programmes will be gone. It will all boil down to "A or B".
This lack of choice will be no service to the citizen, but no one is thinking about him at the moment. His opinion will be asked briefly in about a year from now, and then the question will be simple: Klaus or Zeman.