Last week I was back at my Alma Mater, Leiden University, visiting my old department. Over impromptu drinks, I struck up a conversation there with one of my old profs. He’s originally from the Czech Republic so naturally we ended up talking Czech Politics. He argued that the presidential elections are second order elections.
In political science, first order elections are the most important elections in the country. In parliamentary systems, they’re the parliamentary elections; in presidential systems, it’s the presidential elections. Other elections, for instance to municipal councils or European parliament, are considered to be less important than the nation wide elections, because the elected offices are less powerful. This is manifested in a number of ways: for one, turnout is lower. For another, the most well-known politicians don’t run for such offices. Lastly, the themes in those campaigns are often not the ones pertaining to the actual office being filled. For instance, during European campaigns, you’ll often see national politicians debating national themes that the European Parliament has little or no say in. Similarly, voters end up voting for this party or that candidate over another for reasons that have little to do with the local office they’re running for, but instead (for instance) to register their discontent with the national government).
So what about the Czech president? Well, the office is not too powerful, and is far less important than that of Prime Minister. This is the reason that the President was never directly elected in the first place until this year. And many of the themes discussed during the campaign were issues that the Czech president has little or no say over. But there’s some good reasons to argue that these elections aren’t so second-order as one would expect.
For one, turnout is remarkably high. In the first round, 61 percent of the voters showed up, in the second round, this was 59 per cent. In recent years, elections to the lower house have attracted similar percentages in recent years (63 % in 2010; 64 % in 2006; 58 % in 2002). In the 27 senatorial districts up for election in 2012, turnout was far lower (the highest was 43 per cent during the first round in Zlin, but turnout was as low as 10% in the second round in Sokolov). The regional elections in 2012 brought between 32 (Karlovy Vary) and 41 per cent (Pardubice) of the voters to the polls. Notably, these were the elections in which the communists won big, leading to regional governments including the communists or relying on their supports, which in turn has caused consternation and protests – but only one in three voters bothered to show up. The 2009 elections to the European Parliament (poster child for second-order elections) saw even fewer voters at the polls, with turnout reaching 28 per cent.
An additional reason for seeing the Czech Presidency as first-order rather than second-order is that the office has traditionally attracted key figures in Czech and Czechoslovak history. The key figure from the First Republic was Masaryk – president between 1918 and 1935. During that time, there were several Prime Ministers, but few of them are remembered today. Only Edvard Beneš is still a household name, and arguably because he became the president later on. Similarly, Václav Havel, leader of the Velvet Revolution, went for the Presidency and did not become government leader. The point is that for an office that is purportedly so weak and second-order, the Czech presidency sure does attract a lot of high rollers.
The presidency’s of Klaus and Zeman, the two figures that dominated Czech politics during the 1990s, can be seen in a similar light. Of course, both started out as Prime Ministers before they became president. But in Klaus’s case it does not seem that we can speak of his presidency as the eminence grise from Czech politics retiring to a more sedate and calm office, to be remembered mostly for his work as PM. It’s too early to really comment on Zeman’s presidency, but he also seems intent on making his presidency one to be remembered.
This is a paradox – from an institutional and constitutional point of view, the President is second-order, no doubt about it. But from a cultural point of view, in the experience of both political elites and the electorate, the Czech president is a first-order office.