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Czech ruling coalition on path to disintegration

The resignation of Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec has set in motion a process whose ultimate result will most likely be the disintegration of the three-party ruling coalition. The junior coalition partners of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus--the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-CSL) and the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA)--have found it difficult to work under Klaus for some time. The departure of Zieleniec--whose conciliatory political style made him popular with the coalition parties--is likely to make the ODA and the KDU-CSL even less enthusiastic about staying in the government. The negative effect of Zieleniec's departure on the two junior coalition parties is being intensified by the fact that another ODS politician, whom the ODA and the KDU-CSL have found easy to work with, Interior Minister Jan Ruml, is also leaving the government

Both the ODA and the KDU-CSL sense that the once dominant and self-confident ODS is badly shaken by Zieleniec's departure. Zieleniec accused the party leadership of undemocratic practices and mishandling party finacies. Although all ODS leaders have united in their opposition to Zieleniec, their newly-found unity cannot conceal the fact that the party is, and will be, on the defesive. Both journalists and rank-and-file ODS members will want answers to questions raised by Zieleniec.

The KDU-CSL has already announced that it will seek a revision of the government manifest. Subsequently, it would like the government to submit itself to a vote of confidence. The ODA has expressed tentative support for the idea. Klaus and other ODS leaders staunchly oppose the KDU-CSL initiative. They realise that at best the ODS would emerge from any new negotiations about a party manifesto badly weakened vis-a-vis ist two coalition partners. But more likely the Klaus-led government would not survive a vote of confidence. Klaus rightly sees the KDU-CSL proposal as a trap. In fact, ODS Deputy Chairman Miroslav Macek has warned that the proposal is nothing else but an attempt to bring Klaus down and form a government without him.

The current crisis is not a sudden development. It has been building for almost a year. The governmentalmost fell in May, when it submitted itself toa vote of confidence after announcing two packages of austerity measures. The KDU-CSL has gone reluctanly along, but its chiarman, Josef Lux, has never concealed the party's growing opposition to both the austerity measures and the continuation of Klaus's tenure as prime minister. In June Lux openly said that the country finds itself in a post-Klaus era.

The coalition could fall apart in several ways. For example, one of the junior coalition parties--or both--could simply leave the government. They have been quite open about their dislike for the personnel changes in the government that the ODS plans to inroduce. They also complain about an apparent lack of direction that the goverment has suffered under Klaus in recent months. Given the growing disparity of views among the coalition parties, any negotiations about a new government manifesto could easily break down.

Another possibility is that the opposition will call for a vote of no-confidence. In the current circumstances-- in which some ODA and KDU-CSL deputies find the continuation of the Klaus-led government to be an increasingly unappealing option that only harms the two junior parties--such a vote could easily result in the government's fall. The same is true about a vote of confidence triggered by the coalition itself.

Yet another possibility at this point is that Zieleniec's departure will, after all, trigger internal upheaval with the ODS that may resut in Klaus's fall. Although the ODS leadership has closed ranks behind Klaus, serious questions will continue to be raised about charges made by Zieleniec. Moreover, the departing foreign minister is the most popular ODS politician. Since he has resigned also from his deputy chairmanship post in the ODS, his departure is going to hurt not the ODS-led government but, above all, the ODS. Opinion polls are likely to register a further drop in the popularity of the ODS. Should that indeed happen, the support of ODS leaders for Klaus may rapidly erode.

Should the government fall for the reasons listed above, or any other reason, it may be quite difficult to come up with a new coalition government that would be stable. The ODS can no longer offer Zieleniec as a viable alternative to Klaus at the post of prime minister. And no other ODS politician is at this point likely to be acceptable to the junior coalition partners. Lux or ODA Chiarman Michael Zantovsky are, on the oter hand, not likely to be accepted by the ODS. Moreover, the ODA, too, is currently experiencing internal turmoil that coud result in the fall of Zantovsky as party chairman or an internal split.

Clearly, Czech politics is in for a difficult period. The coalition parties may try toavert any head-on collision before the presidential elections in January, but the coalition is unlikely to survivebeyond the spring of 1998. Good news in all of this is that the period of muddling through, that has lasted for more than a year, seems to be coming to a close. Good news also is that the country's democratic institutions are stable enough to handle a period of political instability. Bad news is that finding a solution may be a protracted process that is ultimately likely to result in new elections. That could,at best, mean that finding a new political equlibrium may take many months. A worse scenario is that not even new elections may be able to bring new energy and dynamism into the stalled Czech political machine.

Reuters - 29. 10. 1997