Czech Constitutional Court changes electoral law in favour of opposition

Czech Constitutional Court changes electoral law in favour of opposition
Billionaire populist Andrej Babis after his 2017 general election victory.
By bne IntelliNews February 4, 2021

Just eight months before the elections to the Chamber of Deputies in October, the Czech Constitutional Court has annulled aspects of the electoral law that hurt smaller parties, a decision that could prevent Prime Minister Andrej Babis remaining in power.  "This is just another way to remove Babis from politics," the premier said after the court verdict.

He claimed that the Constitutional Court and its Chief Justice Pavel Rychtesky were trying to influence the political environment in the country and the election results. "The timing is clear evidence that this is a purposeful political decision. The Constitutional Court will make other governments inoperable, the chamber will be dysfunctional, and it will be almost impossible to make a government majority," Babis said.

According to Czech President Milos Zeman, the repeal of the electoral law clause may destabilize the Czech constitutional system. He warned that the politicians must now find an agreement on the new wording of the law in a short time, both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate. 

The president also warned that if, for example, deputies and senators did not agree on the organization of electoral regions, elections to the Chamber of Deputies could not take place in time. The new deputies would not be able to replace the current MPs and the government would not be obliged to resign, because the inaugural meeting of the new chamber would not take place.

President Zeman has strongly supported Mr Babis virtually since the billionaire entered politics in 2011 with his technocratic populist ANO party. Mr Zeman has fully used and even extended the president's discretion to appoint who he likes as candidate for premier. He has recently stated that he will nominate the leader of the largest party – not the largest coalition – after the next election, a stance that is likely to give Babis the first chance to put together a government.

Justice Minister Marie Benesova (nominated by Mr Babis) said the court's decision is a "top performance" at which the mind boggles. "What mainly bothers me about the constitutional decision is that they had it there for over three years and now, a few months before the election, they are suddenly deciding," she said. "What's behind it? Who committed to whom, who and what have they been promised?" she stressed.

The Constitutional Court ruled on the initiative of 21 senators, submitted three years ago. Coalitions, just like individual parties, will now need to reach only a 5% (compared to the current 10%) threshold to enter parliament. The court also cut the paragraphs regulating the determination of the number of deputies in the regions and the distribution of seats. 

Rychetsky stated that “having 14 electoral regions of unequal size in the Czech Republic, in tandem with the D’Hondt method of allocating mandates, significantly undermines the principle of equality of electoral votes. Acting on a proposal by a group of senators, in the interest of equal suffrage, the Constitutional Court has therefore decided to annual a section of election law on the proportional allocation of seats.”

The amendment is warmly welcomed by the opposition parties, as the law was favouring big political parties. According to the Chairman of the Pirate party Ivan Bartos, the Constitutional Court confirmed the long-standing opinion of Pirates and Mayors and Independents. 

"The added clause was a remnant of 'the [1998] Opposition Agreement', we have been pushing for its removal for a long time," he said, stressing that the need for coalitions to gain more votes than individual parties to enter the Chamber of Deputies distorted equal political competition in the country and limited cooperation between political entities.

The opposition agreement was a political agreement between the then two biggest political parties,  the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats,  after the 1998 general elections, when the Social Democrats led by the current President Milos Zeman were allowed to govern with the support of the opposition Civic Democrats. The agreement was criticized for a rise in corruption. 

"I believe that we will find a prompt agreement in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the first meeting is due on Tuesday. The verdict of the Constitutional Court does not change the coalition cooperation between the Pirates and the Mayors," Bartos said. 

The chairman of the Civic Democrats (ODS) Petr Fiala confirmed that the court's decision has no effect on the centre-right coalition of his party with the Christian Democrats and TOP 09. "We were not afraid of the added clause. We believe that we will succeed in any electoral system," he added.

TOP 09 chairwoman Marketa Pekarova Adamova welcomed the "elimination of injustices" towards small parties. "It is clearly correct and I welcome it. On the other hand, the court had three years to decide, and it decided very close to this year's elections, which created a great deal of uncertainty," she told the Czech News Agency. 

According to latest data published by Median agency on opinion poll, should the elections have taken place in January, the ANO party of the Prime Minister Andrej Babis would win it with 26.5%, followed closely by the coalition of Pirates and Mayors and Independents with 25% and the centre-right coalition SPOLU (Together) of ODS, Christian Democrats and TOP09 with 18.5%. 

The far-right party SPD would gain 9% and the current junior government party Social Democrats and the Communists would get 7% each. 

In terms of the electoral potential, which is the percentage of voters who seriously consider voting, ANO would get 32.5%, while the Pirates and STAN coalition would gain 35% and SPOLU 23.5%. 

Both the ruling and the latest opinion poll is bad news for Babis as he struggled to find coalition partners in the previous elections. An agreement with his current junior coalition partner the Social Democrats took 10 months. Moreover, the Social Democrats have already declared that they will in no way be part of the Babis coalition anymore and have been discussing cooperation with the Green party and trade union representatives. The two opposition coalitions have also ruled out working with the billionaire.

"Prime Minister Babis, as is typical for him, is again looking for enemies and culprits. It is his strategy to 'solve' the problems that have arisen. He tries to put the blame on someone who is not in favour of him, to make himself an evil enemy and an innocent victim against whom everyone has conspired. As Babis' election results so far show, it has worked out for him," said  political scientist Ladislav Mrklas.

Mrklas also pointed out that the change of the electoral system could help Babis, as it gives a more chance for success in the elections for the Social Democrats, the Communists and the far-right SPD, who have all formally or informally supported his government. "Especially the still uncertain participation of leftwing parties in the Chamber of Deputies could allow Babis to continue as PM even after the elections. Of course, we do not know how the negotiations on the new electoral system will end," he added.