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Czech government passes confidence vote

The parliament's vote of confidence in the government on 10 June represents probably the last chance for the three-party ruling coalition to start working as a team and avoid early elections. Given the recent history of the coalition, the odds are, however, that a lack of team spirit that has been typical for this coalition government will soon emerge again.

The vote of confidence gives the coalition government a new lease on life. But to use it successfully, the government will have to meet three conditions. First, it will have to forge a broad political consensus, including at least tacit support by the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) for the austerity measures proposed in the government's stabilization package. Second, the government will need social peace. It means that it will have to negotiate patiently with trade unions and be willing to make compromises. Third, the three coalition parties will have to work in unity.

Meeting any of the conditions will not be esay. The Social Democrats might have been willing to cooperate, at least partly, with the Klaus government last year after the parliamentary elections that resulted in a politcal deadlock. Unused to communicating with the opposiiton, the minority government, however, opted for confrontation. The CSSD has little or no incentive to make things easier for the besieged government now. As the vote of confidence showed, the opposition does not have enough votes to bring the government down yet, but in the medium run it can politically only benefit from maintaining a critical atttitude toward the government's austerity policies.

Already before the vote of confidence, the government had shown it is willing to work with trade unions. The 8 June meeting did not produce any concrete results but leaders of trade unions showed moderation. The trade union movement in the Czech Republic is, however, fragmented. Richard Falbr, chairman of the umbrealla Federation of Czech and Moravian Trade Unions, is a moderate, but he is said to control roughly only one third of trade unions in the country. The Klaus government has in the past been confrontational when dealing with trade unions and striking workers. It will have to change its style significantly if it is to prevent new flare-ups of labor unrest.

The biggest challenge for the government, however, will be maintaining a degree of coalition unity. Before the confidence vote, Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL) chairman Josef Lux had openly called for replacing Klaus as prime minister. Lux himself have repeatedly come under attack from politicians in Klaus's Civic Democratic Party and Klaus himself for being, in their view, unprincipled. And Civic Democratic Alliance chairman Michael Zantovsky recently attacked ministries held by the KDU-CSL as weak.

In short, the coalition is severely disjointed, and it will be extremely difficult for the coalition leaders to patch up their differences. Moreover, Lux has engaged not only in personal attacks at his coalition partners but he also increasingly differs from the two civic parties in his views of what the country's principal policies should be. The KDU-CSL increasingly acts as a center-left party and is in many areas closer to the Social Democrats than to the civic parties. Pursuing vigorously rightist policies could discredit Lux in the eyes of many of his voters. He may, therefore, be tempted to leave this government, should the austerity measures prove to be too difficult to bear.

Lux has made a good tactical move when, a few days before the confidence vote, he joined the Social Democrats and trade unions in calling for a postponement of rent and energy prices hikes. The government rejected his proposal during its extraordinary session called one day before the confidence vote, but the KDU-CSL chairman is now on the record as demanding the postponement of the hikes. He may be able to use it in the future to his advantage. The last-minute compromises between the two civic parties and the Christian Democrats before the confidence vote may not hold long.

Another problem for the coalition is the turbulent situation within Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS). The current government is still headed by Klaus mainly because the ODS has not been able to come up with a replacement. The ODS has been created as Klaus's party, and many of its leaders fear it could disintegrate without Klaus at the helm. Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec's recent attack on Klaus (in connection with an IMF letter that Klaus had apparently failed to share with his cabinet memebrs) turned into a show of unity after Zieleniec came under tremendous pessure from other party leaders. Under the surface, however, the ODS is said to be torn apart, and the search for Klaus's successor is under way.

Should new opinion polls show that the popularity of the ODS has again significantly dropped (according to the May polls the ODS is trailing the Social Democrats by some eight percentage points), the party is going to experience a new wave of turmoil. Any such turmoil is likely to affect the government.

Despite the vote of confidence, the government will remain unstable. It now faces challenges much bigger than those it faced when it still enjoyed public support and when the coaliton was relatively united. The confidence vote may result in a period of relative political lull, unless the Social Democrats make good on their promise to seek a vote of no-confidence in the government in July. After the summer, however, many of the current political problems are likely to return.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 11. 6. 1997