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Civic democratic alliance elects new leader

The election of Senator Michael Zantovsky, formerly a Czech Ambassador to the United States, as new chairman of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) at the party congress held 21-23 March, could have far-reaching ramifications not only for the ODA but the entire political scene. Should the ODA, under Zantovsky's leadership, be able to overcome its internal conflicts, it could become a formidable competitor of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS).

The Czech Republic currently experiences a crisis of confidence. Politics is seen by many people as corrupt and politicians as unable to articulate new visions. A politician such as Zantovsky, who is not too intimately tied with politics in the country in last few years--and yet is very well-known--could generate enthusiasm among politics-weary voters. Zantovsky is a good communicator; and the ODA has a good and coherent program, which it has never been able to sell to voters. In the past the party spent much of its energy on internal infighting, failing to develop a well-functioning party structure. Its image has been that of a rather querulous group of Prague intellectuals.

Zantovsky ran (and won) on the ODA ticket in the Senate elections last fall but who actually joined the party only a few weeks ago. Since all other ODA leaders are associated in the minds of voters with numerous past disputes within the ODA and with various scandals, Zantovsky's status of an outsider is clearly an asset. Zantovsky, who started his political career as the first spokesman of President Vaclav Havel, will also benefit from his close association with the tremendously popular president. He seems to realize that the ODA, above all, needs to become a real political party. To accomplish that, he has said he will not seek a government post as is customary for coalition party chairmen in Czech politics. Rather, he will devote himself fully to party affairs.

Perhaps most importantly, Zantovsky is not seen as being close to either of the two warring groups within the ODA--that of ODA founders and that of pragmatists. ODA founders have been staunchly opposed to cooperating more closely, or merging with, the ODS. Under their leadership, the party in the past often spent much energy on battling the ODS, which was programmatically very close to the ODA. ODA founders have also been critical of the communist past of Trade and Industry Minister Vladimir Dlouhy, a leader of the pragmatists' wing and until recently the most popular politician in the country. Dlouhy and his followers have long advocated a closer cooperation with the ODS and a less ideological approach to politics than ODA founders. Before the congress, Dlouhy decided not run for chairmanship himself but endorsed Zantovsky.

At the congress, Zantovsky defeated four other candidates, three of whom (Daniel Kroupa, Libor Kudlacek, and Karel Ledvinka) are associated with the group of ODA founders. The fourth, Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky, is seen as a pragmatist but not necessarily a fervent supporter of Dlouhy. What is most important for the future of the ODA is that Zantovsky's election has been well received by both groups. All three ODA deputy chairmen elected at the congress, including Skalicky and Dlouhy, have expressed full support for Zantovsky,

The fact all ODA leaders rallied behind Zantovsky once he had been elected, is an important novelty in a conflict-prone party. At the congress, Zantovsky and other ODA leaders were also able to stay away from attacks against the ODS that were common at previous party congresses. Moreover, speakers at the congress openly spoke of signs of political and and social crisis, explaining why ODA recipes could work. The main reason the ODA in the past spent so much energy on criticizing the ODS was that the two parties were programmatically so close. Lately, however, the ODA has increasingly represented a real alternative to the ODS, chiefly because it has advocated radical, market-oriented reforms in many areas much more resolutely than Klaus's party.

The fact that more than 60 percent of the congress delegates voted for Zantovsky and his vision of the party's future, gives him good chances of reforming the ODA. He is in a very good position to unite the party, change its political style, and explain better its program to voters. A substantial rise in the popularity of the ODA would change Czech politics in more than one way. For example, the mere fact the ODA would no longer be in danger of failing to clear the five percent electoral hurdle could attract many of those voters who in the past did not vote for the ODA out of fear of throwing their votes away.

Without the ODA in the parliament, putting together a right-of-center coalition government would be almost impossible. The opposition would be significantly strengthened. On the other hand, should a reformed ODA be able to attract new voters, the coalition as a whole would be strengthened. True, some of the new voters of the ODA would naturally be those who had previously supported the ODS or the other coalition partner of the ODS, the Christian and Democratic Union. But the ODA has also always had sympathizers among centrist voters. Its eventual rise could therefore also weaken the opposition Social Democratic Party whose continuing radicalization has made it difficult for many centrist voters to support that party.

Reuters - 26. 3. 1997