Czech election: Social Democrats set for victory

Bohuslav Sobotka anticipates tough coalition talks. Photograph: Reuters
Bohuslav Sobotka anticipates tough coalition talks. Photograph: Reuters
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EARLY results in the Czech Republic’s parliamentary election showed the left-leaning Social Democrats winning the most votes in a contest that was called to end a political crisis triggered by the collapse of the previous centre-right ­administration.

With just over 30 per cent of all polling stations counted yesterday, the Social Democrats had 22.14 per cent of the vote, while the new centrist Ano (Yes) 2011 movement – led by a Slovak-born business tycoon – was in second place with 18.66 per cent and the Communists were in third with 16.95 per cent.

It is the first time Communist politicians have been represented since being swept from power by the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

The Czech prime minister Petr Necas’s centre-right coalition broke down in June amid a whirlwind of allegations about corruption and marital infidelity.

It was alleged Necas was having an affair with his chief of staff Jana Nagyova, who was arrested and released by police in the course of their investigations into claims of illegal surveillance and bribery.

His resignation led to a snap election being called.

As the polls indicated, voters have punished the previous government for the scandals and its austerity measures.

Parliament’s lower house dominates the legislative process, and the leader of its strongest party is generally asked to try to form a new government. Last night, the leader of the Social Democrats, former finance minister ­Bohuslav Sobotka, predicted tough talks on forming a new coalition government after new parties performed well.

His party’s share of the vote fell well short of the 30 per cent they had been hoping to win.

Four other parties – including the two centre-right factions whose scandal-tainted coalition imploded after Necas stepped down – also seemed set to cross the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament.

“If the lower house of parliament is fragmented, we will face tough negotiations on forming government,” Sobotka told Czech television.

“The Social Democrats are prepared to take on this tough negotiation and we will try to form a reasonable, stable cabinet,” he said.

Sobotka said he was willing to talk to all parties, except the centre-right groups which led the last government.

However, Ano’s billionaire leader, Andrej Babis, said he did not want his party joining any coalition and at present could not envisage supporting a Social Democrat cabinet.

A Social Democrat government would be expected to apply new taxes on banks, utilities and high earners to pay for social programmes and help keep the Czech Republic’s budget deficit below the ­European Union’s prescribed level of 3 per cent of national output.

The Social Democrats, out of power since 2006, have previously said they want to form a minority government backed in parliament by the Communists, heirs to the totalitarian party that lost power in 1989.

It would be the first time the far-left party has had any share in power in the post-Communist era.

Financial markets have mostly ignored the election thanks to the Czech Republic’s economic stability, underpinned by low public debt load and the lowest borrowing costs in emerging Europe, but they may be rattled by an uncertain outcome and the risk of drawn-out coalition talks.

Necas’s Civic Democrats won only about 7 per cent and its former coalition partner, the conservative TOP09, about 11 per cent, the partial results showed.

Anger over sleaze in the central European country of 10.5 million people gave a big boost to Ano and other protest parties in the final weeks of the election campaign, raising the prospect of prolonged haggling over a coalition government.

Ano struck a chord among voters who had grown weary of the old parties and seemed willing to overlook Babis’s pre-1989 membership of the Communist Party and alleged links to the then-secret police.

“The current parties have messed it up. They all lie just to protect each other,” said voter Vilem Zajicek, 50, making clear he was backing one of the new groupings.

Sobotka’s hopes of becoming prime minister will hinge not only on the smaller parties entering parliament.

President Milos Zeman, a former Social Democrat prime minister, has made clear he expects to have a say in the post-election negotiations.

Zeman’s position will be all the stronger if the margin of the Social Democrats’ victory proves narrow. But he may be weakened by the failure of a leftist grouping of his allies to make it into parliament, as indicated by the partial results.

Zeman has long disliked Sobotka and may try to negotiate a coalition headed by another Social Democrat, analysts say.