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What are the implications of Czech deputy premier´s resignation?

The resignation of Czech Deputy Prime Minister Jan Kalvoda over using a phony doctorate raises questions and may influence Czech government politics in a number of ways. Much will depend on how Kalvoda's Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) will handle the situation.

Kalvoda announced on 17 December that he was resigning from his posts of deputy prime minister and justice minister as well as giving up his parliament deputy mandate in response to the fact that he had been been using the degree of Doctor of Laws (JUDr .) without, in fact, ever earning it. Kalvoda did graduate from Charles University's Law School but with a lesser degree. His resignation came just hours after the resignation of a deputy representing the Christian Democratic Union/People's Party (KDU/CSL), who had also used the JUDr. degree without having earned it. Three more deputies--two from Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and one from the opposition Social Democratic Party have admitted to using, or to knowingly having their names associated with, JUDr. degrees, although they had never earned them. The three have so far refused to resign.

One question the affair has raised is whether Kalvoda was forced to resign or did so on his own. According to some observers, the abruptness of his departure suggests that he might have acted under an ultimatum. The resignation has also sparked a debate over whether the use of a phony degree is such a transgression that leading politicians should resign over it, threatening the stability of the country. After all, Kalvoda has been seen by most Czechs--even his political opponents--as a decent and hard working politician. Some observers and politicians have praised his decision, as well as the decision of the KDU/CSL deputy, to resign as "a gust of fresh wind" in Czech politics that will improve the country's political culture. But others seem to think that the roots of the low level of political culture lay elsewhere.

Whether Kalvoda's departure may actually threaten the stability of the minority coalition government will depend, to a large degree, on how the ODA will handle the unexpected situation. The ODA is a small party that in the June general elections barely managed to pass the 5% hurdle set by the Czech electoral law for gaining seats in the parliament. Its program and objectives are similar to those of Klaus's ODS.

In fact, the ODA's biggest problem has been how to distinguish itself enough from the ODS. It has stubbornly resisted suggestions that it should merge with Klaus's party. One reason is that the ODA in a way has developed as a party of personalities whose objectives are similar to Klaus but who could not coexist with the rather autocratic prime minister within one party. Kalvoda, who is expected to give up also the post of party leader, has been among those who have been opposed to closer ties with the ODS. Pragmatists, such as Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy, one of the most popular Czech politicians, on the other hand, have been more open to the idea.

Dlouhy is the most natural replacement for Kalvoda. However, some ODA leaders are opposed to appointing him to that post not only because they are afraid he would steer the party closer to the ODS but because Dlouhy was a communist party member before the velvet revolution in 1989. The rift between those critical of Dlouhy's past and those who do not think it matters is likely to play an important role in searching for a successor to Kalvoda.

Should the ODA be able to come up with a replacement fast, the government should be in no danger. The coalition agreement signed in June by the ODS, the ODA, and the KDU/CSL specifies how many seats, and which portfolios, each party has in the government. Therefore, the the transfer of powers from Kalvoda to his successor should be smooth as long as the ODA can come up quickly with a new leader and find a politician capable of taking over the post of justice minister (in case, the new party leader is not qualified to hold the post of justice minister). However, should the ODA be rocked by an internal struggle, the crisis within the smallest parliament party could spread into the government.

However, even if the ODA acts quickly, there may be problems ahead. Both the selection of Dlouhy as the successor to Kalvoda or his rejection may deepen some of the existing rifts within the party. Should Dlouhy be rejected, he and his followers may feel that there is no future for them in the party anymore. Should Dlouhy be elected and should he start subsequently pushing for closer ties with the ODS, the opponents of both a merger and his communist past may be tempted to leave the party.

Therefore, no matter what happens, Kalvoda's decision is likely to weaken the ODA and, ultimately, the ruling coalition. Moreover, it is not yet clear how the opposition parties, who have a majority in the parliament, will react. The opposition Social Democrats may be tempted to use Kalvoda's resignation to put the government under pressure, in order to shift the public's attention away from internal problems they currently struggle with. Such further politicization of Kalvoda's departure and the debate over his replacement could trigger a political crisis.

Reuters - 6. 12. 1996