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A lack of alternatives stifles Czech politics

One of the causes of the current Czech political crisis is a certain lack of alternatives to the current government and to Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Although confidence in the government has reached record-low levels (according to some opinion polls, only 25% of Czechs trust their government) many of those voters who no longer trust their government cannot, at the same time, imagine a government run by the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) or even a coalition government run by someone else than Vaclav Klaus.

One reason for this state of affairs has been the radicalism of the CSSD. After the parliamentary elections in June 1996, in which the right-of-center coalition was defeated by the margin of two seats by the opposition, the CSSD opted for a highly confrontational style. The party cooperated with President Vaclav Havel in allowing Klaus to form a minority government but, afterwards, the CSSD kept the government under constant pressure. As opinion polls suggested, many voters apparently did not appreciate such a confrontational style.

They were equally disturbed by the proclivity of CSSD chairman Milos Zeman to make offensive statements about his political opponents--both within his own party and in the coalition--as well as by Zeman's appetite for making serious charges against the government and the Czech Intelligence Service (BIS) that he was later unable to prove. Zeman's attempts to lure voters of the extremist parties have been even more disturbing.

Under normal circumstances, many of the voters who have increasingly been dissatisfied with the ossified and--despite mounting problems--unapologetic coalition, would have seen the CSSD as an alternative. Some political analysts suggest that had the CSSD played a more constructive role, and had its image been that of a less radical party, Zeman could now be heading the government.

Instead, many voters--despite their dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition--either have resigned on politics or have stayed with the coalition. The popularity of the CSSD has been rising in recent polls but at a much slower pace than the extent of the coalition's problems seems to merit. Many voters see the CSSD as being not only too confrontational but also too socialist. The recently-published economic program of the CSSD has been criticized by most economists as relying on measures that would most likely hurt the Czech economy even more than it already is.

Another problem is a lack of politicians that most Czechs see as an alternative to Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Opinion polls show that Klaus is still seen as the best possible prime minister. However, support for Klaus has been declining; the same polls show that a majority of voters do not know who should lead the country. That is a disturbing sign. Since no major party has been able to present a politician who would be viewed as a credible replacement for Klaus, the coalition remains dependent on a politician whose time seems to have passed.

Yet another problem is that many Czechs seem to fear political change. The Czech Republic is the only post-communist country where the political pendulum has not swung from the right to the left, or vice versa, since the fall of communism. In 1992, the government of the Civic Forum, a broad anti-communist umbrella, was replaced by the current coalition, but leading politicians belonging to the three parties that form the current coalition had been part of the Civic Forum government.

Czech politicians and political commentators agree that the current situation is bad. Some even agree that in Western democracies--or in Poland or Hungary--there would be a government change or new elections under such circumstances. But the Czech Republic is said not to be able to afford such a change because an alternative could be even worse. This is a dilemma in which many Czechs seem to be currently trapped.

It is difficult to determine whether the fear of change is a psychological condition of a nation that has not experienced a government change or whether it is based on a real lack of alternatives. The post-communists in Poland and Hungary, too, had been radical in their statements and had promised radical economic remedies before they got elected. After their election, however, they decided to play on "the playing field" drawn by international organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, or the European Union. Paradoxically, being leftist, they appeared to have more legitimacy to implement unpopular austerity measures.

Vaclav Klaus, too, seems to be irreplaceable only until the Czechs will experience a change at the government's helm. Then, they will likely realize that a prime minister does not necessarily need to be an economic expert but that he certainly needs to be a skilled politician who can serve as an integrating factor in both his own party and the coalition. Klaus is currently failing in that role.

One of the most important lessons that has emerged from developments surrounding the recent vote of confidence in the government is that Czech political culture is beginning to resemble that of the so-called First Republic (1918-1938). In the First republic's twenty years, politicians repeatedly reached last minute, behind-the-scenes compromises rather than bringing down a government. Although the First republic's politics was known for politicking and mindless partisanship, repeated crises caused by such a political culture were always overcome in a "velvet way." The modern Czech Republic seems to be headed in the same direction. Only time will tell whether such proclivity for compromises can help the sick economy and whether it does not weaken people's trust in democracy.

Reuters - 16. 6. 1997