The Czech Multipartism in the Late 1990s Some Remarks Maxmilián Strmiska

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The Czech Multipartism in the Late 1990s

Some Remarks

Maxmilián Strmiska
The Czech multiparty arrangement of the late 1990s continues to be, for various reasons, an interesting case of the genesis of post-communist party arrangements. The Czech Republic was (at least until the mid 1990s) considered a “model” post-communist country in transformation, which was, quite naturally, reflected in the evaluation of the Czech party system. In many respects, this party system appeared to be the most “European” of all post-communist party arrangements and therefore the closest to west-European models (cf. Novák 1997; Novák 1999). To a certain extent, such evaluation could be agreed with, as well as the thesis that this system had some remarkable and, in a way, exceptional traits within the post-communist context, in particular a simple, easy to orient and well-structured party landscape, a homogeneous right-leftist continuum (cf. Kitschelt, Mansfeldová, Markowski, Tóka 1999; Golosov 1999), a stable number of relevant parties which settled at 6 (in 1996) and later at 5 (1998), a low electorate volatility beginning with 1996 (below 10 %) and, last but not least, the fact that the Czech (post)communist party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia; KSČM) did not become, or did not continue to be, one of the major poles, as a result of electoral and political expansion of the non-communist Czech Social-Democratic Party (ČSSD) which from a minor party with a limited parliamentary representation became one of the two major poles of the Czech party and political landscape. This last fact was attributed major importance and interpreted as a symptom of relative “maturity” of Czech post-communist democratic polity.

However, the statements dating to the mid-1990s (and sometimes even to the late 1990s; cf. Klíma 1998) and classifying the process of stabilisation and consolidation of the Czech political party system as concluded proved untimely and wrong. There was also a neglected “dark” side of the apparent stability of Czech party arrangement of the period 1993-1995. The brief, but intense and almost uncontested hegemony of the Civic Democratic Party (in the years 1993-1995) made it difficult to foster a genuine pluralist competition with clear governmental alternatives and thus the Czech party system resembled an incomplete and somewhat “defective” pluralism. There was only a limited stabilisation of the Czech party arrangement related with some of its working and reproduction levels which were mainly linked with the profiling of the different parties/operational units of the system, as well as with the stabilisation of a set of competition structuring and party co-operation conditions. Such stabilisation was a necessary prerequisite for stabilisation of patterned interactions and of working logic of the system but it could not be confused with systemic stabilisation and consolidation (cf. Strmiska 1999). This became clear after the parliamentary elections in 1996 and 1998, respectively, through the reproduction of seemingly stalemate post-electoral situations, manifestations of governmental and political instability and, for the most part, by abortive alternation of governmental parties and the tendency of important sectors of Czech party elites towards non-standard semi-consociative solutions. This also implied mutual understanding and co-operation of parties/major poles which had been the main alternative options before. At the same time, the application of non-standard solutions had a secondary effect of further shattering the belief in the “firmness” of the system, and made space to trends, contained in the past, to redefine the position and role of the different parties, including those representing major poles (especially the Czech Social-Democratic Party), and to change the party competition structure. It was not surprising that the entity to profit from the situation was the Communist party, successfully accumulating protest votes. The Czech party system and polity proved unable to control efficiently the alternation of governmental parties, or to develop a set of applicable coalition formulas or patterns broad enough to assure governability. All this can be considered as a consequence of the absence of a pattern/patterns of co-operation which would have been considered legitimate and functional by both the party elites and the electorate. The establishment of any “consolidated” multiparty party mechanics without such patterns is quite excluded, at least in competitive pluralist arrangements.1

The question of the establishment of a univocally identifiable and a more or less “standard” mechanism of Czech party arrangement functioning (from the point of view of traditional typologies) remains, quite paradoxically, open. Reflections over possible trends in the development of this remarkable structure bring forward the issue of the “majority mission” of Czech political parties in the context of a broader question of eventual restructuring the party system and changing or clear profiling its functioning mechanism.

The issue of “majority mission” of Czech political parties has several topical aspects which deserve commentary. It is quite understandable that especially in the last three years a two-party mechanics characterised by the alternation of “one-colour” majority governments has become more attractive in the Czech political environment. Elimination of the necessity of coalition practice presupposed by the establishment of such mechanism would most likely eliminate also some elements producing stalemate situations or situations requiring “non-standard” solutions. The question is, however, whether such argument is a sufficient excuse for institutional engineering. Equally important is the question whether (and if so, to what extent) the application of institutional (especially electoral) engineering could be successful in the Czech context and whether it would be as “beneficial” as expected. Leaving apart the technical aspects of such solution (including a change in the electoral system favouring manufactured majorities), what remains is a difficult to answer question of the impact of a complex of heterogeneous factors on the political party system functioning. A change in the quality of the “majority mission” of political parties representing the main pillars – poles of the party and political arrangement would apparently be a significant issue in this respect. However, such change in quality cannot be guaranteed by institutional engineering (except for drastic solutions conceivable in theory but unfeasible in practice in the present Czech political context). The restructuring of the Czech party and political system by means of institutional engineering can only be successful in the long run if it is supportive of the established development trends and contributory to a “controlled” selection of the mechanical predisposition of the actual party system functioning and reproduction. However, expecting institutional engineering as such to create similar trends and predisposition would be quite naive (cf. Sartori 1998).

The term “majority mission” in the context of the Czech party and political arrangement in recent years (and especially from 1996 to 1998) can only be used in the “weak sense” of the word. Convincing electoral victories of a particular political party allowing for a subsequent establishment of a majority “one-colour” government could not be expected and, in addition, expecting such victory (as a current, regular phenomenon) did not become an integral part of the processes integrated in the formation of the prevailing patterns of party and political interactions and, in the broader sense, of the inner logic of the functioning and reproduction of the respective political arrangement. On the contrary, the logic was outspokenly of a multiparty nature and relied on inevitable coalition practice. In the above circumstances, two major political parties, the ODS and ČSSD, representing the two principal poles and two cores of potential alternative governmental coalitions were closest to the formations with a full-value “majority mission”. The legitimacy and mobilisation sources of the above parties had more or less corresponded to that role by then. Adaptation and enhancing such resources would have surely been an indispensable part of the change in quality of the “majority mission” of major political parties (the principal poles). The question is, however, how demanding and risky from the point of view of potential destabilisation of the party and political arrangement such operation would be. In my opinion, such question cannot be answered in isolation from the respective context. Apparently, there was some risk of destabilisation and an overall extension of the “learning process” of the party and political elites and the electorate, as well as of the interaction pattern profiling and of the party system functioning mechanism naturally brought about by a transformation like that. It should be pointed out, however, that the extent of legitimacy of such solution undoubtedly depend on the success or lack of success of the establishment of alternative effective modes of functioning of the Czech party system. In my opinion, the probability of an effective implantation of the mechanism of one-party majority government alternation in the Czech environment is relatively low, at least in the medium-term perspective. After all, this fact seems to have been respected also by the ČSSD and ODS elites, as could be seen in the apparent moderation of their original concept of electoral reform (which mainly applies to the position of the ODS). The above situation resulted in a project of electoral reform basically preserving the proportional distribution of mandates in the House of Deputies, but with a larger number of electoral districts, which was expected to favour large parties.2 The declared purpose of the reform project was to simplify the process of the formation of majority governments involving the maximum of two political subjects. This can be interpreted as an effort to achieve – if not factual elimination of relevant “third parties” – at least a clear hierarchy of major and minor political parties representing the major and “junior” coalitional partners. This intention appears more elaborate and justified than the unrealistic concept of a drastic transition to the practice of “one-colour” majority governments. Nevertheless, it is difficult to forecast whether its implementation will result in an efficient solution of the present “crisis of coalition formulas” and in the launching of functional models of coalition co-operation guaranteeing stable majority governments and their reasonable alternation (or at least the alternation in the core of governmental coalitions). Multipartism (as a type of system, not as a mere format) without working models of party and political co-operation and without diversified feasible coalitional patterns is to a large extent loosing its raison d’être regardless of its representative character against the political community structure, no matter how significant this may be. If Czech multipartism does not find a corresponding solution to this problem, it will continue underdeveloped and defective which cannot but degenerate.
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1 The Czech case is a good example of the need for sophisticated interpretation of the process of formation and “maturation” of post-communist party arrangements and, in the first place, of the process of profiling and stabilisation of their systemic properties and predispositions. The stabilisation of a political party system cannot be well assessed on the basis of different indicators viewed in isolation, e.g. the stabilisation of the number of relevant parties, electorate volatility, “age” of parties or their legitimacy as political actors, etc. These are just inputs, a sort of preliminary prerequisites of stabilisation of a party system as a system of interactions. The description and explanation of the process of establishing and profiling a system of interactions is not exhausted by merely describing the respective inputs. A very important role in the process of profiling is played by “learning process” of party elites and of electorate, a process which is by nature based on the evolution of interactions, on experiments with different interaction patterns. For a party system to work in an efficient way and to become the backbone of a pluralist democratic arrangement, political elites and the respective electoral constituencies need to accumulate the necessary amount of experience, i.e. an adequate variety of experience, both positive and negative, including moments of trauma and disillusion. Such experience can only be obtained after “testing” the capacity of the different component of a party system, which applies to elites in the first place. This also means that the system must go through at least two rotations of governmental parties and experiment different governmental and/or coalition formulas. Only then it can start “maturing”. The learning process in the case of East-Central European post-communist polities has not arrived at a stage that would allow us to speak of a concluded consolidation of party systems. The most appropriate term to be used in this respect seems to be the “end of the beginning” of early phases of East-Central European post-communist party systems development in which the actual “maturing” of party systems and profiling of their systemic properties only began in the late 1990s, after the stabilisation of the necessary conditions and of the elementary “rules of the game” (cf. Ágh 1999c).

2 The key “formative” element of this project consists in creating 35 electoral districts (each with 4 to 18 mandates to win). Previously, there have been only 8 large multi-member electoral districts.

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