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Czech ruling coalition under more strain

The Czech Republic's government coalition leaders have spent the final days of 1996 trying to avert a government crisis. The possibility of a crisis was triggered by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's threat on 19 December to pull his Civic Democratic party out of the coalition over what he described as violations of the coalition agreement by the Christian Democratic Union/People's party (KDU-CSL),one of the ODS's two junior coalition partners. Several KDU-CSL deputies had voted, in the first readings, in favor of a pension bill and a bill on farming, both proposed by the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) but opposed by the ODS.

Klaus was also angered by the fact that the KDU-CSL had banded together with the CSSD in electing former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart to the post of Senate chairman. Pithart's Civic Movement lost to the ODS in the general elections in 1992. When the KDU-CSL proposed Pithart for the post, the ODS flatly rejected him, insisting that the coalition find a joint candidate. The ODS's authoritative approach in responding to the the KDU-CSL's choice--a behavior that in the past had repeatedly caused strain in the ruling coalition--angered KDU-CSL chairman Josef Lux. Rather than agreeing to search for a common candidate, Lux insisted on Pithart. He received moral support from President Vaclav Havel, who described Pithart as a good choice.

In his 19 December statement, Klaus said both bills threatened the economic reforms he had spearheaded and that his party could not stay in the government should they be approved with the help of the KDU-CSL in the second and third readings in February. The pension bill would significantly decrease the retirement age for both men and women, while the farming bill would introduce subsidies to farmers. Lux argued that his party was not in favor of either bill but had helped the pension bill to pass in the first reading in response to Klaus's rejection of minor concessions in text of the bill which the KDU-CSL demanded.

Several versions of the farming bill drafted by Lux, who is the Minister of Agriculture, had been rejected by Klaus and, subsequently, by the government. By helping the opposition-sponsored farming bill to pass the first reading, Lux sent a clear message that he was tired of Klaus's behavior. It worked. A new version of the farming bill drafted by Lux was approved by the government on 23 December, prompting the KDU-CSL to vow support for the bill.

The squabbling between the ODS and the KDU-CSL took place in the aftermath of the resignation from all government posts by Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Jan Kalvoda, chairman of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), the third coalition party. Kalvoda resigned in response to the fact that he had used a Doctor of Law degree without having earned it.

By Christmas, the badly shaken coalition seemed to be partly back on track after ODA leaders promised to find a replacement for Kalvoda quickly and after the government approved Lux's farming bill. However, the crisis offers several lessons.

Most important, the ODS, whose arrogant and overconfident behavior--as various surveys have indicated--cost the coalition a victory in the June general elections, has not learned from its mistakes. Its leaders called for a change of style at the party congress in early December but, in dealing with the KDU-CSL just a few days later, Klaus again resorted to what some observers described as "fist-pounding" tactics. The ODS has yet to learn how to govern without getting always its way with both the opposition and its coalition partners, as had been the case before the June elections.

Klaus's threat to leave the coalition sounded unreasonable because the two bills would still have to pass two more readings if they were to become laws. As Lux has noted, rather than making threats that can destabilize the country it would be better to sit down at a negotiating table and sort out differences between the coalition partners. As observers have pointed out, the ODS should not make such threats any time it is is faced with a political defeat.

Moreover, Klaus's threat sounded a bit hollow because there is no alternative to the current coalition. The CSSD and the KDU-CSL are unable to form a government without support from the Communists, which both the KDU-CSL and CSSD refuse. Should the ODS leave the coalition, early elections would have to be called.

However, opinion surveys indicate that the early elections would not significantly change the country's political landscape. In fact, the only significant change that could occur is the elimination of the weakened ODA from the parliament. In the past two elections the party barely won the 5% of the popular vote necessary for gaining seats in the parliament. Without the ODA in the parliament, the KDU-CSL would become a kingmaker--a nightmarish scenario for Klaus.

Clearly, all three coalition parties cannot currently do without each other and, therefore, need to look for compromises, if the minority coalition government is not to collapse under the weight of its own disagreements. The ODS carries the heaviest burden. It needs to recognize that the political situation in the country has radically changed and that, as a result, it needs to search for more conciliatory approaches to both the opposition and its junior coalition partners.

Reuters - 16. 11. 1996