People’s interest in politics is falling, according to a recent survey by the polling agency CVVM. (While, in 2007, 50% of Czech were interested in politics, a year later it was only 46%.) The number of Czechs interested in EU politics, moreover, has fallen to a record low. Some 64% say they don’t care about political happenings in the EU. The statistics are even more discouraging when it comes to people’s willingness to go to the polls. According to the CVVM survey, only 40% of Czechs plan to vote in the upcoming European parliamentary elections.
If you take a look at the election billboards posted across the country, the statistics are not so surprising. The country is chock-full of negative campaigns that are founded on people’s fears. The ČSSSD says that ODS candidates are the worst, most corrupt politicians, incapable of ruling the country. The ODS says something similar about the ČSSD. Most negative billboards aren’t even clearly labelled and often make use of the colours of the party they are warning against. An outsider could easily think at first that parties are saying negative things about themselves.
Abroad, negative campaigns are part of politics. In the United States, much of the competition between parties is built on negative campaigns. But, unlike in the Czech Republic, all the negative messages are clearly labelled so that people know which party is the author. It’s similar in the UK. Every voter knows who is saying what and why. In the Czech Republic, there is a total confusion of public space and public debate. Statistics have shown in the past that such confusion often leads to voter apathy and unwillingness to go to the polls. For instance, several years ago, Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar showed that aggressive and negative campaigns deter people from voting and also lead to lower efficiency for politicians.
Political parties and their members find it harder to make compromises, and it is more difficult to form postelection coalitions. We were able to witness this very recently in the Czech Republic. The ODS and the ČSSD were unable to agree on basic foreign policies when it came to deciding whether to extend the participation of Czech military missions in Afghanistan and whether there should be a US missile defence radar built on Czech soil. Experts say that anonymous negative campaigns also help prepare fertile ground for extremist parties, such as the Workers Party. The public starts to get the impression that democratic systems don’t work because politicians are unable to come to agreements on key issues. For some, voting for extremist parties can seem like a quick solution, despite the evident dangers.
The next time that ODS and ČSSD advisers are trying to come up with ways to make their parties more visible in the run-up to elections, they should consider all of the implications of their actions. If they continue anonymously spreading fear, the two main parties could be replaced by ones that will really give the public reasons to be afraid.