Prague - In November, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) enjoyed a 38% voter support, while the Civic Democrats (ODS) were trusted by a mere 21% of the population. Today, four months before general elections, the two parties are tying in polls again.
"They are standing on the same starting line again," says Jan Hartl, director of the polling agency STEM. Earlier this month, STEM reported that a massive drop in ČSSD support and a major recovery of ODS's popularity has put both parties at 28%.
This appears to be a replay of a similar situation three years ago, only the other way round. A year before the 2006 parliamentary elections, ODS was 17 percentage points ahead of ČSSD, but four months before the voting their popularity evened out.
Govt toppling backfires
The latest STEM survey took place immediately after the European Parliament elections, in which ODS beat ČSSD. Hartl admits that this may have influenced his agency's survey. Still, this is not to say that voters' sympathies will necessarily swing back to ČSSD.
"The Social Democrats are still in a better position, but they need to activate their voters in order to win," says Hart. It seems that in the past months ČSSD has been rather doing the opposite.
The Civic Democrats first reduced the ČSSD's massive lead in February, after the then ODS-led government took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. A month later, ČSSD toppled Mirek Topolánek's cabinet in a no-confidence vote, a move that backfired and further hurt the then opposition party's rating.
"Whoever manages to better orientate themselves in today's chaotic situation will win the elections," says Hartl.
Long-term economic solutions needed
The STEM director says parties should not overlook the main morale of the Euro elections. "Socially oriented parties had no gains, although they were expected to thrive as a result of the economic downturn," says Hartl.
He thinks that pledges of welfare policies are less efficient at a time when most people expect a further economic downturn. "Higher social benefits will help for several months. A long-term crisis benefits those who will manage to maintain jobs," says Hartl.
But for now, no Czech politician has come up with a comprehensive and long-term economic vision. "Parties fail to meet the public's expectations," says Jan Bureš, a political scientist from Metropolitan University in Prague.
This has had damaging ramifications particularly for ČSSD. After the centre-right government left having made no substation changes, it is now the Social Democrats who are expected to offer a new alternative.
"ČSSD policy statement features old recipes, which may appeal to older voters, but it contains no solutions to the crisis," says Bureš.
He believes that ČSSD has made a serious political mistake by pledging to increase taxes. "Taxes are already high, while the quality of public services keeps deteriorating. Especially young people hold the opinion that they can't expect much from the state, and hence it is better not to give anything to it."
Will ODS seize the chance?
The media and the parties themselves are now eagerly waiting for this Thursday's release of a survey by another pollster, CVVM, which may confirm the slump in ČSSD's popularity.
ODS and smaller liberal parties may exploit the left's momentary weakness and steal the show by pledging to save jobs, fight public debt and restrict the government's powers.
Whether the voters are convinced by such a plan, we will not find out until the end of August. Opinion polls made in the summer are unreliable as many potential respondents are gone on holidays.