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Cracks in Czech ruling coalition

The Czech government coalition--consisting of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), Justice Minister Jan Kalvoda's Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), and Agriculture Minister Josef Lux's Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL)--is increasingly showing signs of strain. The relative electoral success of the two junior parties in the recent Senate elections has improved their standing within the coalition and weakened the ODS's dominance.

The relationship between the two parties and Klaus's ODS has been an uneasy one ever since the coalition was created in June 1992. Both the KDU-CSL and the ODA soon discovered that the ODS had no intention to treat them as equal partners. The nineteen-member government , in which the ODS had ten seats, decided on important issues by voting; as a result, the two parties were often overruled. Some major demands, such as the restitution of Church property (demanded by the KDU-CSL) and the country's decentralization (demanded by the ODA) were simply ignored by the ODS. However, despite such humiliating terms of cooperation, the two parties never seriously threatened to leave the coalition. The mood in the country was such that any attempt to abandon the ODS--and thus weaken the country's reform drive--would have certainly backfired.

The coalition unexpectedly lost its majority in the general elections in June 1996. The three parties agreed to form a minority government, but both the KDU-CSL and the ODA were more forceful than in 1992 in negotiating a coalition agreement. The ODS had to make a number of concessions. However, soon after the elections the two parties again discovered that dealing with the ODS may be difficult. Klaus's party, under pressure from the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD), have hesitated to go forward with measures such the deregulation of housing prices-- a step demanded by the ODA. And it angered the KDU-CSL by bowing to CSSD pressure in agreeing to return only some Church property, while shifting the responsibility for deciding on the rest to the parliament.

What angered the two junior coalition parties even more was the ODS's refusal to nominate jointly with them candidates for the Senate elections. The ODS's decision was in many ways a rational one. The party leadership justly believed that, under the majority electoral system which favors large parties, the ODS had an excellent chance of winning a large number of seats on its own. Moreover, should any of the two increasingly unreliable junior coalition parties leave the coalition, it would take with it Senate seats won with the help of the ODS.

The ODS has been suspicious in particular of the KDU-CSL, whose alliance with the ODS appears to be a matter of tactics rather than commonality of programs. The Christian Democrats' program is in many areas a social democratic one. The party's emphasis on a social market economy has been a source of irritation to Klaus. Shortly before the Senate elections, Lux accused the country's Secret Service (BIS) of following him. His accusations triggered a major scandal, focusing attention on a problem-ridden agency and its leader, Stanislav Devaty, a former ODS member. Devaty was forced to resign amid accusations that Klaus, as prime minister, had failed to exercise his general supervisory rights over the BIS. Minister without Portfolio Pavel Bratinka of the ODA claimed he should be responsible for overseeing the agency under the new division of powers within the government, irritating Klaus.

The prime minister angered the two parties again after the second round of the Senate elections when he phoned the KDU-CSL candidates defeated in the first round, urging them to support ODS candidates. Both Lux and Kalvoda accused Klaus of having violated political ethics, refusing to support ODS candidates in many districts. Lux's repeated warnings against a monochromatic Senate apparently worked--ODA and KDU-CSL supporters in many districts banded together with CSSD and Communist supporters to defeat ODS candidates, winning together 20 seats and helping CSSD to win 25 seats.

The lesson of the Senate elections for the two junior parties is that being seen as an ODS adversary may be, under some circumstances, better than be seen as an ODS ally. The KDU-CSL, for example, has insisted on its own candidate, former Prime Minister Petr Pithart, for the post of Senate chairman, despite strong objections from the ODS and despite the fact Pithart could be elected only with the help of the CSSD and the Communists. The ODA, on its part, threatened to vote against the country's budget, unless the government agreed, at least in general terms, to support the deregulation of housing and energy prices. The KDU-CSL threatened to do same, unless the government agreed to spend more on the army.

In the end the two parties on 13 December voted in favor of the budget but, clearly, the ODS may henceforth find itself under the same pressure from its coalition allies that it has faced from the opposition parties. Discovering that playing an anti-ODS card pays may be too tempting for the two smaller parties. The possibility that one or both of them would leave the coalition is no longer inconceivable.

Reuters - 14. 12. 1996