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Czech civic right in turmoil

The Czech Republic's right-of-center civic parties are in trouble. Both the Civic Democratic Party(ODS) of outgoing Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) of Jiri Skalicky are split and losing voters' support. A new right-of-center party, in which dissatisfied politicians from both parties may join forces, is likely to emerge in the next few months.

The ODA began to show signs of a profound internal crisis several months ago, after some of its long-time leaders refused to accept the election of Michael Zantovsky as new party chairman. Zantovsky, a former ambassador to the U.S., was seen by party "fundamentalists" as a newcomer who "stole" the party from its founding fathers. Although the popularity of the ODA rose to some 15 percent--the all-time high--immediately after Zantovsky's election, the "fundamentalists" established a "right-wing faction" that went on to subvert the new leadership's policies. The deepening internal split eventually began to adversely affect the party's popularity.

Moreover, Zantovsky made a number of tactical mistakes that further hurt the ODA's image. Although he was replaced by Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky as ODA chairman in November, the ODA currently enjoys the support of only some 4 percent of Czechs. Some party fundamentalists, such as Ivan Masek, have left the ODA. The ODA parliamentary caucus is split between those who support Skalicky and those who claim the Skalicky-led pragmatists have betrayed the party's conservative ideals.

The ODS, whose popularity had been declining for months, got in November enmeshed in a party financing scandal that eventually resulted in the resignation of Vaclav Klaus as Prime Minister. A group of party dissidents, led by former Internal Affairs Minister Jan Ruml, demanded that Klaus resign also from his post of ODS chairman. However, at an extraordinary party congress on 13-14 December, Klaus was reelected. The congress basically refused to deal with corruption charges and finacial machinations; Klaus even spoke of drawing a "thick line."

The opponents of Klaus have decided to establish a party fraction that wants to revive the ODS as a credible right-wing party. However, such a feat will not possible as long as Klaus continues to lead the party. The ODS, as its emerged from the congress, is, above all, Klaus's party. A majority of regular party members realize that the ODS, which was created by Klaus and controlled by him for years, is not likely to survive if Klaus leaves.

The crisis of the civic parties has, however, deeper causes than the concrete developments that have triggered it. Both the ODA and the ODS were cretaed to spearhead the transformation process in the Czech Republic. Since Vaclav Klaus declared the reforms to be over in 1995, the two parties have never managed to transform themselves into regular right-of-center parties pursuing convincing conservative and/or liberal policies. Both parties have continued to use the "revolutionary" vocabulary of the transformation period.

Moreover, there has also been a growing discrepancy between the ideological proclamations of the two parties and their deeds. Despite Klaus's assurances that the transformation process was over, many reform projects have remained unfisnished. The two parties have been seen as being primarily responsible for the countrys deteriorating economic performance. The confrontational style of ODS leaders--most of whom kept sweeping problems under the carpet--contributed to the ODSůs image as an arrogant party.

The current turmoil in the twocivic parties has, therefore, resulted from the cumulation of many problems, some of which will be difficult to address. Most important: in creating unreasonable expectations which they have repeatedly failed to fulfill, both parties might have discredited themselves to such an extent that they may no longer be seen as spokesmen for rightst voters. One of the ways out for the civic right may indeed be the creation of a new party. Alternatively, ODS "dssidents" may decide to join the ODA and strive, jointly with the party new leadership, to transform it into a more credible political group that could replace the ODS as the leader of the Czech civic right.

Establishing a new party may be difficult. Such an effort requires not only organizational skills and money but also time. This is why most ODS dissidents, as well as the ODA as a whole, are against early elections. They realize that a new political subject, or, alternatively, a reformed ODA, may need more time to win over right-wing voters.

The most important question is, however, whether the two civic parties have not discredited liberal or conservative policies to such an extent that any attempts to revive the civic right are destined to fail in the foreseeable future. In such a case, the opposition Social Democrats may dominate Czech politics (and governments) for years to come. Indeed, at this point it seems quite likely not only that the right-of-center civic parties will find themselves in the opposition after early elections but that they may have to spend there several years before the civic right realigns itself and comes back as a credible political force again.

Reuters - 29. 12. 1997