Will the Czech Republic reverse its historically low voter turnout in the European elections?
January 23rd, 2024
By Michal Šiffner, Senior Public Affairs Consultant | Czech Republic
A chance to reverse historically low voter turnout?
The Czech Republic is gearing up for the European Parliament election, ending a year and half of electoral inactivity—a notable anomaly in the typically dynamic Czech political environment. However, the European Parliament elections do not tend to attract significant attention from Czech voters; in 2019, the Czech Republic had the second-lowest voter turnout of all EU member states.
Research on voter turnout suggests that Czech politicians have so far failed to communicate the value of the European Parliament to citizens. Although election day is still quite far away, the current situation is already beginning to suggest that this time the situation may be a bit different compared to the previous European elections and the parliamentary parties will be careful not to underestimate the situation.
Knock-on effects of the EU disconnect
Low voter turnout in the European Parliament elections traditionally benefits center-right parties (currently leading the government coalition), which generally count on more educated and engaged voters with a greater interest in European issues. In contrast, the strongest opposition party of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, ANO, despite its current high popularity, will have to face up to the fact that its voters are not particularly interested in what is happening at the EU level. The ANO’s goal will be to mobilise voters and ensure the highest possible turnout, while undoubtedly trying to take advantage of the citizens’ dissatisfaction with the current economic situation.
A loss of trust in traditional political parties
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s present government finds itself contending with unprecedented low public opinion midway through his term, and surveys reveal a notable level of distrust. In fact, all parties of the ruling five-party coalition are gradually losing popularity. Support for Fiala’s ODS is around 12%, Pirates 10%, STAN 6%, TOP 09 5%, and KDU-ČSL 4%. This trend has been spurred by a crumbling economy and record inflation, but also by the government’s poor external communication. The opposition SPD is currently polling around 10% which shows rather stable support for his far-right anti-system party. Meanwhile, ANO’s Babiš is a clear frontrunner, leading the polls with around 33% support.
The upcoming European Parliament election may, to some extent, serve as a referendum on the current government. For all political parties, it will act as a litmus test for the regional elections that will take place just four months later.
Complex coalitions for the European elections
Government coalition parties ODS, KDU-ČSL and TOP09 have decided to run together again as part of the SPOLU (“together” in Czech) coalition, as they did in the 2021 general elections. While SPLOU proved to be a strong brand in these elections, it might be a risky move from the perspective of the European elections. While domestically, the SPOLU parties are largely aligned on most issues, there are long-standing differences, particularly in matters related to the EU, most notably over adoption of the euro. In the European Parliament, ODS also belongs to a different political group than the other two coalition partners.
In the national elections, voters were able to overlook these differences with the prospect of removing Andrej Babiš from power. However, in the European Parliament election, this could pose complications. For many TOP09 voters, the most liberal and pro-European party in the SPOLU coalition, it may be difficult to simultaneously support conservative and Eurosceptic Alexander Vondra from ODS, who is the leader of the SPOLU candidate list. However, the decision to run together to maintain the thus far successful SPOLU brand should be therefore seen more in the context of the 2025 regional and general elections, rather than as a tactic for the 2024 European elections.
More names to watch on the MEP candidate lists
The other two members of the current government coalition, STAN and Pirates, have confirmed they will not repeat their cooperation from 2021 following internal disagreements. In assembling their candidate list, the Pirates will rely on their current MEPs – led by the current MEP Marcel Kolaja – in combination with less-known party members. Meanwhile, the STAN candidate list will be led by an experienced politician and former member of parliament, Jan Fárský, along with well-known economist Danuše Nerudová, who enjoys significant support among young and liberal-minded voters.
The opposition party ANO will no longer be able to rely on its most successful MEPs, Dita Charanzová and Martina Dlabajová, as they both left the party due to its shift away from liberal politics towards nationalism and conservatism. In the European elections, the party will be led by the less well-known former Minister for Regional Development Klára Dostálová, whom ANO presents as an expert on European funds. The party will once again seek to attract voters primarily based on the personality of the party leader, Andrej Babiš, though he is not running in the European elections himself. As mentioned earlier, it is likely that ANO will focus primarily on voters dissatisfied with the current government, competing especially with protest parties such as the far-right populist SPD.
European elections: a barometer of public sentiment
As the election season unfolds, the results will serve as a barometer of public sentiment towards the current government and provide insights into Czech political dynamics on both domestic and European fronts, especially ahead of important regional and general elections in 2025.