Last year’s run of close elections continues to reverberate: this week, the Czech Republic is having another try at forming a government.
Mirek Topolanek’s centre-right Civic Democrats emerged from the June election as the largest party, but fell short of a majority: with their allies the Christian Democrats and the Greens they have exactly half the seats, 100 out of 200. A previous attempt to form a government failed in October, and Topolanek has been acting in a caretaker capacity ever since.
Hopes of winning a vote of confidence this time appear to rest on two defectors from the opposition Social Democrats, who now sit as independents. If Topolanek fails again, the Social Democrats might be given a try, perhaps with the aim of detaching the Greens from the centre-right.
Alternatively, the two major parties may put together a grand coalition, as has just happened in neighbouring Austria. If three attempts to form a government fail, fresh elections must be held.
The popular view associates this sort of instability with decadent European multi-party systems and proportional representation, but that’s not the Czech problem at all. Minor parties lost ground at the election, and the country effectively has a two-party system.
The problem was that the centre-right had only a very narrow lead, and with an even number of seats in parliament, that just happened to produce a dead heat.
Could it happen in Australia? We also, foolishly, have an even-numbered lower house (150), and the possible disappearance of our swing independent, Peter Andren (whose seat has effectively been abolished in a redistribution), means that a tie between the two major blocs is a real, although small, possibility.
The Czechs have been without a functioning government now for more than seven months, and it would be fascinating to see how Australia coped in such a situation. As I said back in August, it “confirms something that we all intuitively know but often forget: how unimportant government is.”