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Czech politics adrift

Still recovering from the November Senate elections, which were marred by an abysmally low turnout, the Czech Republic has had to grapple with other problems over the past week or so. President Vaclav Havel underwent surgery for lung cancer on 2 December, and his recovery has been complicated by pneumonia. After two years of difficult negotiations, the Czech and German prime ministers have at last agreed to sign the bilateral declaration; but rather than laying to rest mutual grievances, as was intended, unofficial news about the document 's contents have already galvanized radicals into action on each side of the border. Finally, at its congress this weekend in Brno, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) failed to deliver a clear message that the party is back on track, despite hopes that the meeting would act as a watershed for the party.

Havel, a largely ceremonial figure before the June general elections, reemerged as the country's most important politician when the ODS and its coalition allies failed to win a majority of parliamentary seats in that ballot. Havel helped negotiate a delicate arrangement whereby Klaus and his coalition allies formed a minority government and the opposition leader, Social Democratic chairman Milos Zeman, took the post of parliamentary speaker. That arrangement ensured a degree of stability, but major political forces have been virtually deadlocked over a number of issues. Under these circumstances, Havel has become a political broker and a stabilizing political force.

Neither the ODS nor its main rival,the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), has dealt well with the results of the June elections. After four years of virtually unopposed rule, the ODS has found it difficult to adjust to time-consuming negotiations and searches for compromises. The CSSD, which was catapulted to the position of majority opposition leader after the elections, was clearly unprepared to play the role of a constructive opposition. Since June, the two parties have engaged in acrimonious conflicts, personified by Klaus and Zeman's obvious dislike of each other.

Under pressure from the strengthened opposition, scandals in the banking, industry, and privatization sectors broke out, suggesting that all is not well with the Czech ecomony beneath the veneer of the impressive macroeconomic performance. It became clear that the rule of law and transparency of rules governing the privatization process were neglected during the rapid economic transformation of the previous four years. The ODS, instead of accepting responsibility for such failures and promising a remedy, showed little willingness to implement changes. In July, deputy ODS chairman and Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec called for the party to be less arrogant and more open, but the debate prompted by Zieleniec's call quickly subsided.

Leading politicians saw the first-ever elections to the upper chamber of the Czech parliament, held in two rounds in the second half of November, as offering a possible end to the political deadlock. However, neither camp scored an impressive victory in the vote. Moreover, the very low turnout made it virtually impossible to estimate what the political preferences of the 65% of the voters who did not cast their ballots are. Opinion polls conducted after the elections have suggested that people are disenchanted with politics and most politicians.

Havel's sudden departure from active political life does not help matters. It has brought home to most Czechs and politicians that there is no one who can replace the president. Not only is there no one as popular as Havel, but, more important, no other politician has enough authority to bridge differences between the dead-locked coalition and the opposition. Without Havel's moderating influence, the fate of the Czech-German declaration hangs in the balance. A number of opposition deputies have indicated they might want to amend the declaration, a move that would invalidate the document.

Another key political figure, Vaclav Klaus, was reelected chairman of his party at the ODS congress in Brno on 7-8 December, but the congress failed to convince political observers that the party has learned from its mistakes and that Klaus can again assume its pivotal role in Czech politics. Delegates called for more openness and agreed to a change of style. But, with the exception of Miroslav Macek, who was elected one of the four ODS deputy chairmen, the leadership of the party remains the same. ODS caucus chairman Milan Uhde and several other delegates criticized Klaus for his lack of critical self-reflection. Analysts agree that this failing will make it extremely difficult for the party to fulfill most of the promises for change made at the congress and to stop its dwindling popularity ratings.

For the time being, Czech politics is adrift. With the elections behind them, Czech politicians may be ready to search for compromises. However, looking for compromises will require moderation, which very few politicians have so far been able to demonstrate. As long as Havel is out of active politics, that moderation may well remain absent, not least with such thorny issues as the Czech-German declaration and the second and third readings of the country's budget still ahead.

Reuters - 21. 12. 1996