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Czech civic parties at crossroads

The two civic parties in the Czech ruling coalition--the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus and the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) of Michael Zantovsky--are in trouble. Should they be unable to solve their internal problems in the next two months, the coalition is most likely doomed. Conversely, should the two parties be able to come up with constructive solutions to their internal problems and improve their tarnished image, the coalition--which currently appears to be on the road to disintegration--may survive.

The ODA, the smaller of the two civic parties, is currently split. The so-called pragmatists, led by Zantovsky, defeated at the last party congress in March a group of right-wing fundamentalists, led by ODA parliamentary caucus leader Ivan Masek. However, the fundamentalists--who argue that the pragmatists have betraed the principles of political and economic liberalism--have refused to accept their defeat. Shortly after the congress they founded the so-caled right-wing faction within the party, that has subverted most initiatives of the Zantovsky leadership.

In a way, the split in the ODA is nothing new. The party has always been known as a rather quarrelsome group. But the ODA's previous leader, Jan Kalvoda, was able to keep the party formally united. Zantovsky, who came to his post after servng for several years as the Czech Ambassador to the United States, has been seen by his opponents as an outsider lacking authority. Moreover, Zantovsky committed several serious tactical mistakes--for example, he refused to join the government and got involved in a rather senseless conflict with the coalition Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) over a possible sale of Czech tanks to Algeria. The initial enthusiasm of Czech voters generated by Zantovsky's election as party leader has evaporated. While the party popularity rose to almost 15 percent in April it currently stands at about 5 percent. Given the fact that under the Czech electoral law, parties have to clear a five percent electoral hurdle, the ODA's very existence may be at stake, should early elections be held soon.

In light of the ODA's falling popularity, Zantovsky called a party conference for the second half of November. He apparently hoped that the conference would confirm his mandate and isolate the right-wing facton. However, the level of dissatisfaction with Zantovsky among ordinary members has apparently reached the point where his further staying in the post of ODA leader is in doubt. Deputy Prime Minister and Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky has emerged as Zantovsky's main rival for the post. Although Skalicky is not a member of the right-wing faction, he seems to be more acceptable to Masek's group, mainy because he--unlike Zantovsky--is one of the founders of the ODA.

Should Skalicky replace Zantovsky, the party may survive as one entity, although internal quarrels will undoubtedly continue. Skalicky is an able technocrat, who proved to be very efficient as the government's chief coordinator of flood relief during the past summer's catastrophic floods. He, however, lacks charisma. Many ordinary members of the party may also see his victory as too big a concession to Masek's group.

The victory of Zantovsky, on the other hand, would almost certainly lead to a split of the ODA. Should the right-wing faction be handed a second defeat in one year, its mebers would probably attempt to found their own party. Alernatively, they could decide to stay in the party, further intensifying the internal conflict.

Clearly, regardless of the outcome of the conference, the ODA will continue to have problems. The Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-CSL), which is making its further staying in the coalition dependent on the outcome of a coalition conference in January, will certainly watch in what direction the ODA is developing. Any strenghtening of the right-wing faction within the ODA wuld certainly make any cooperation between the two parties more difficult. On the other hand, cooperating with Zantovsky has also proven to be difficult, and Skalicky may be seen as a more acceptable partner.

The ODS, too, is experiencing internal problems. The departure of Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec from his ministerial and party leadership posts has shaken the party. Although other ODS leaders closed ranks behind Klaus, Zieleniec's departure started a debate on what the party needs to do to stop its popularity from declining. Klaus has produced a critical analysis of the party's performance, in which he urged the ODS to change its image and style of work. Changes in the ODS leadership are expected as soon as December or January. However, most of the changes would affect only the posts of deputy chairmen, while Klaus would stay in his post as party chairman.

But in fact, the question that the ODS needs to solve most of all is whether it can regain some of its former popularity while Klaus continues to lead the party. The prime minister is closely associated not only with the ODS's and the coalition government's initial successes but also--and increasingly so--with their recent failures. The ODS, however, does not seem to be ready to part with Klaus. The party, which lacks a clear ideological profile, has been shaped as, above all, Klaus's party. Without Klaus, the ODS would be in danger of disintegrating.

This internal dilemma of the ODS is in fact the chief dilemma of the whole coalition. The KDU-CSL would apparently be much more willing to stay in the current coalition if the ODS, and the government, were not headed by Klaus. KDU-CSL chairman Josef Lux has openly said Klaus should go. Lux has been dissatisfied with both Klaus's style of leading the government and the inability to commuicate with the Klaus-led ODS. Finding a common language between the KDU-CSL and the ODS may thus be very difficult,unless the ODS does not decide to change more radically than te party leaders envisage at this point.

Reuters - 11. 11. 1997