Czech Republic: Constitutional Change is Necessary
(A shortened version of this article was published in the October 1998 issue of the New Presence monthly)
Hysteria has broken out after the recent toleration agreement between the ODS and social democrats (CSSD). The Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and Freedom Union (US) have called the agreement unconstitutional, while Havel expressed his doubts and said he would have his legal experts examine it. Meanwhile, some newspaper commentators have expresses fears that the country's young democracy is in jeopardy.
What is all the fuss about? Two parties agreed to cooperate. Isn't cooperation central to multiparty democracy? In parliamentary systems based on proportional representation, it is quite rare for one party to gain an absolute majority. Thus, any party sitting in government must cooperate with other parties. The form of cooperation can vary. Most often it takes the form of a coalition, in which other parties have cabinet seats. It can also be some sort of toleration agreement, in which one party agrees to support the ruling party, but declines to participate in government. In some cases, no agreement is reached. Instead, a minority government decides to seek different parties for support on each issue. What is special about the ODS-CSSD agreement is its mildness. The two parties merely agree to prevent early elections by always supporting the other party in votes of no confidence. They do not agree to support each other on any legislative bills. They merely have to consult each other. I am not aware of any cooperation agreement in the history of parliamentary democracy that is so minimal in its contents.
Critics also claim that the agreement threatens democracy, because the two parties plan to propose electoral reform. This reform would probably be a move toward a majoritarian system. Again it is difficult to understand the fuss. The US and Havel both admit that they support a majoritarian system; yet, for some reason they believe it is undemocratic if the "wrong" parties suggest it.
To be fair, Havel has also expressed his fears that electoral reform might weaken pluralism. This is a legitimate fear, since some parties might disappear from parliament altogether if the country were to switch to a complete majoritarian system. In fact, there are many reasons for favoring proportional elections over the first-past-the-post method. When a proportional system works relatively well, such as in Scandinavia and Germany, then it has many advantages over the American type of majoritarian elections. The larger number of parties gives voters greater choice, so that they are not limited to choosing between the "lesser of two evils." When the larger parties ignore burning new issues, new parties can always form to put these questions on the political agenda. The European green parties are examples of this. In countries, such as Germany and Sweden, even parties that are closely aligned with industry have been forced to discuss environmental protection. The proportional system also strengthens parties at the expense of individual candidates, since citizens vote for parties rather than candidates. Thus, election campaigns are also normally highly issue oriented, because the parties must explain why their policies are better than their competitors'. In the USA, where the electorate chooses between individual candidates, election campaigns often degenerate into questions, such as, did Bill Clinton inhale a marijuana cigarette once (!), when he studied at Oxford. Moreover, American types of electoral campaigns are extremely expensive. Each candidate must promote him/herself; and this requires spending a lot of money on advertising. This makes members of congress extremely dependent on the special interest groups that donate money. It also leads to corruption and a general feeling that elections can be bought. These are some of the reasons that barely half of the eligible voters participate in presidential elections in the USA, compared to around 90% in Sweden.
Proportional Representation Requires a Tolerant Political Culture
When it works, proportional representation has many advantages over majoritarian rule. Unfortunately, it does not always work well. In the Czech Republic, two of its three elections have failed to bring about stable governments. No political system can survive such a situation unscathed.
I believe there are two main reasons for this instability. First, a relatively large minority votes for undemocratic parties. In previous elections, the communists and republicans polled nearly 20% of the votes together. Fortunately, the republicans fell under the 5% threshold in the latest election. Nevertheless, the existence of "untouchable" parties in parliament makes it more difficult to form stable governments. As long as the communists remain in parliament and as long as they remain unreformable, the social democrats will never be able to form a left or center-left government, without the cooperation of center or center-right parties. They could rule for one mandate period based on the support of the communists, but the electorate would likely punish them for that in the upcoming elections. As long as the rightest parties refuse to form coalitions with them, the social democrats cannot form a stable government, and thus cannot provide a viable alternative to the previous center-right government.
On the other side, the existence of a rightwing extremist party, the republicans, made it difficult for the three rightwing parties to gain a majority in parliament. Now that the republicans have failed to stay in parliament, the ODS has replaced them as the (almost) untouchable party on the right, despite its clear democratic credentials. KDU-CSL leader Lux and US leader Ruml caused the last government to fall by calling for the resignation of ODS leader Klaus and demanding that the ODS clean up its finances. In fact, Ruml left the ODS and founded the US precisely for these reasons. The two leaders can hardly form a coalition with the unreformed ODS and pretend that nothing has happened. So until the ODS makes some radical changes, it is difficult to forsee a possible center-right government.
The second reason for the country's unstable political situation is the lack of tolerance among the political elite. After the recent elections, some leaders made it clear that they were not willing to place the country's best interests above their personal animosities. Instead, the hapless electorate observed a political soap opera. The facts are well known. Lux, Ruml and Havel can't stand Klaus. Ruml can't stand Zeman and Havel is not thrilled by him either. Zeman allegedly hates (hated?) Klaus and he is not exactly a fan of Ruml. Klaus considers Ruml and Lux traitors and looks down upon Zeman, (although during the electoral campaign he learned to respect his adversary). Amidst this jungle of hatred and dislike, it was difficult for any government to emerge, despite the odd fact that the differences between these parties on actual policy matters is actually relatively small compared to the differences among parties in many West European parliaments.
Are There Any Alternatives?
If the leaders cannot cooperate with each other, then the country would probably be better off with a system which strengthens the largest party so much that it can rule without the support of any small parties. However, this does not mean that the Czech Republic must completely go over to a majoritarian system. If the Czech politicians want to create a system the combines the best of majoritarian and proportional elections, they need look no further than to nearby Hungary. There, half of the members of parliament are chosen on a proportional basis and the other half are chosen in personal elections, in which voters from each district elect one representative. The majoritarian elections themselves are more pluralistic than the American "first-past-the-post-system." Hungary follows the French system, where a second round of polling takes place in districts where no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. Thus, in the first round voters can still chose the candidate from their favorite party, since they have the opportunity of voting for the "lesser of two evils" in the second round.
So far the results in Hungary have been impressive. There have been three elections there since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Each election has led to a change of government and a change of ideology. The conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum won the first election; the reformed communist party won the second election as a social democratic party; after the recent elections, the liberal FIDEZ heads the new government. Despite this pluralism of parties in parliament and government, the political situation has been extremely stable. It is the only country in the region where every government has lasted its entire term. There have not been any early elections or changes of ruling coalitions during a mandate period.
An added irony is that although the majoritarian element in the Hungarian system makes it easier for one party to gain an absolute majority, the political leaders are more willing to form coalitions across ideological lines than in the Czech Republic. For example, in the 1994 elections the Hungarian socialists received 32.6% of the votes, which is similar to the Czech social democrats recent results. Under the Hungarian electoral system this turned out to be enough votes for the socialists to gain a majority of seats in parliament. Although the socialists did not need a coalition partner, they wanted to form a coalition. Moreover, they chose the market-liberal SZDSZ as their partners, even though this party had once been their harshest critics. What a difference to the Czech political climate!
The Hungarian example shows that a majoritarian element in the electoral system makes it easier to form stable governments. This system which strengthens the representation of the largest parties is particularly advantageous for such a country as the Czech Republic, where the political scene is so confrontational that parties are unable to form coalitions. Yet, the Hungarian example also shows that although its system is better for dealing with confrontational situations, it does not strengthen this tendency. On the contrary, ideological enemies have been more able to concentrate there than in the Czech Republic.
A Czech Alternative?
Although the Hungarian model has functioned better than the Czech one, that does not mean that the Czech Republic should blindly copy the Hungarian constitution. There are some disadvantages of having two rounds of voting for the personal elections. It is obviously more expensive to have two elections instead of one. In addition, voter turnout is usually lower for the second round of voting. The marginally interested voters find it too bothersome to vote twice within a short period.
There are two ways around this problem. One possibility is to have the American-British first-past-the-post system for the directly elected seats. This is cheaper, but the problem remains that it is less pluralist than the French-Hungarian model, since the electorate must chose the "lesser of two evils" from the beginning.
Another possibility would be to give the electorate two votes. Voters could indicate their first and second preferences. If no candidate gains a majority of the first preferences, then the second preferences would be added to the first. This, in turn, gives two possibilities. Both of the preferences could be given equal weight. Thus, the candidate that receives the most first and second preferences wins the election. Or the second preference could count as half a vote. If both preferences have equal weight, it easier to calculate the final tallies.
The advantage of giving more weight to the first preference is that it takes into account the strength of support for each candidate. One can imagine a situation where candidate A receives 45% of the first preference votes, but only 3% of the second preference votes, while candidate B receives only 4% of the first preference votes, but 45% of the second preference votes. If the first and second preferences are treated equally, then candidate B will win the election although he/she only has the strong support of a small portion of the populace.
Whichever variant the Czech leaders choose, a combination of directly elected candidates and proportional representation would be a vast improvement over the current electoral system. At the same time, it would have the advantage over a purely majoritarian system, since it would be more pluralistic and lead to more issue oriented elections.
The Weakened Presidency
A greater concern for the Czech Republic is the possibility that the ODS and CSSD will agree to weaken the role of the president. It is well known that Klaus and Zeman are not exactly on the best of terms with Havel. Therefore, it is widely expected that they will try to get their revenge on Havel by further limiting the role of the president in a new constitution.
A new democracy, such as in the Czech Republic and other Eastern and Central European countries is more fragile than a democracy that has existed uninterrupted for many years. It takes time to build up institutions and to create a tolerant political culture. Under such conditions it is especially important to have some sort of checks and balances in order to prevent authoritarian leaders - such as Meciar - from amassing too much power. One can just imagine how different Slovak politics would have been in the last few years if the country had had a strong president, who had won his or her seat in a direct election.
On the other hand, one should not exaggerate the negative effects of limiting the role of the Czech presidency. First, the Czech president is already extremely limited according to the new constitution which Klaus pushed through after the split of Czechoslovakia. The office of the president has only been important because of Havel. He is the most respected and admired moral authority in the country. It is unlikely that his replacement will be able to play such a role.
Second, the Czech Republic already has more checks on governmental power than many Western parliamentary democracies. None of the Scandinavian countries, for example, have a senate. Furthermore, the Czech senate becomes even more stabilizing than the Polish one, because only one third of its seats are chosen at each election. This prevents radical swings in its make up. Many parliamentary democracies do not even have a president (for example, in Sweden). In many other countries, the parliament does have a president, but the president is limited to strictly ceremonial functions. For instance, the German and Israeli presidents will probably not have any more power than the next Czech president, regardless of how much Klaus and Zeman try to change the constitution. So even if the president will probably have less power in the next constitution, this should not cause unnecessary worrying. The advantages of having a stable government will probably outweigh the disadvantages of further limiting the president's power.