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Can ruling coalition survive?

A reshuffle of the Czech Republic's coalition government will most likely not be enough to stop the current political situation from worsening. One reason is that the reshuffle comes too late. Another reason is that the changes are likely to be viewed as only cosmetic unless they affect the whole government, including Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. President Vaclav Havel has called the reshuffle "half-baked."

The ruling coalition had a chance to make government chances, that could still have worked to its advantage, when it in mid-April announced its package of austerity measures aimed at correcting negative economic developments. Combined with the package, repacing a few ministers might have generated new political dynamism. The changes would have also amounted to acknowledging political responsibility for mounting economic problems and financial scandals.

Klaus's government, and the prime minister himself, however, found it difficult--like so many times previously--to admit that individual member of the government, including Klaus himself, and the government as a whole, bear responsibility for failures. As a result, the package has politically failed and, instead, the political crisis keeps intensifying.

The announced reshuffle of the government is likely to fail for similar reasons--namely, the coalition half-heartedness in dealing with the crisis. Sacrificing a few ministers, and moving a few ministers around, is not at this point likely to convince the public that this coalition government can lead the country out of the crisis.

The sense of social and political malaise has reached the proportions where the only solution that could possibly work to save the coalition is the resignation of the entire government and naming of a new government that would consist of representatives of the current coalition-- but under a different prime minister. At the same time, such a government would to present a new program and then submit itself to a vote of confidence by the parliament.

However, there is one important problem in pursuing such a scenario; namely, Vaclav Klaus. He is the leader of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which--despite its recent decline in popularity polls-- is still the strongest coalition party. Thus, replacing Klaus as prime minister would probably be possible only if the ODS were able to come up with someone else. Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec--the second most popular politician in the country--is a natural choice but, being Klaus's friend for a long time, he has refused to step in without Klaus's blessing. The self-centered Klaus, who is unable to see his own failures, is unlikely to give such a blessing.

Leaders of the two junior coalition parties--Christian Democratic Chairman Josef Lux and Civic Democratic Alliance Chairman Michael Zantovsky--are unlikely to take over as leaders oof the coalition because they could not generate enough support in all three coalition parties. Zantovsky would probably be seen as unacceptable by some ODS deputies as well as some Christian Democratic deputies. Lux enjoys the support of the opposition Social Democrats, but is disliked by deputies of both Klaus's and Zantovsky's parties, who often describe him as being unprincipled.

It, therefore, seems that the only way to preserve the current coalition is to convince its leaders to accept a well-respected nonpartisan as the next prime minister. A few other ministries could go to non-partisans. Any other solution is not likely to work.

If Vaclav Klaus stays as prime minister of a somewhat reshuffled government, the government is likely to continue on its current downward path and eventually fall. Should the crown be devalued, Klaus (who has made the strong crown a most important tenet of his policies) and his government could fall even before the summer. But even if the crown survives the current onslaught of speculators, the increasingly unpopular government is likely to run into trouble in the fall when the state budget and other difficult issues are to be discussed by the parliament. Moreover, rents and energy prices are to be significantly increased in the summer.

If Vaclav Klaus is forced to leave, the ODS and the entire coalition are in danger of disintegration, unless Klaus is reasonable enough to assist the coalition with replacing himself with a politician acceptable to all. Given the prime minister's personality, such a scenario is unlikely.

This means the Czech Republic is probably headed for either a collapse of the current coalition or a vote of no-confidence in the government later this year. The most likely new ruling coalition to emerge from early elections is that of the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.

Reuters - 26. 5. 1997