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Czech political landscape changes in wake of Czech-german declaration

Recent attacks by extreme-rightist and extreme-leftist politicians on basic democratic principles have prompted democratic forces from either end of the political spectrum to search - together - for solutions. This new development could signal an improvement in Czech political life. During the second half of last year, Social Democratic Chairman Milos Zeman relied heavily on the support of two extremist parties - the far-rightist Republicans and the Communists - in countering the minority government's policies. Although he did not forge a formal alliance with the two parties, he needed both to pursue his confrontational policies.

The two extremist parties made an informal alliance possible by refraining from anti-democratic behavior for several months after the June 1996 parliamentary elections. However, pursuing an anti-government line in cahoots with the two extremist parties had a devastating effect on Zeman's Social Democrats (CSSD) in particular and the country's politics in general. The standard of political discourse declined, giving way to petty arguments and frequent confrontations. Under constant pressure from the opposition, the government was able to deal with only minor issues and had to postpone larger, more pressing ones. At the same time, the opposition had no coherent program of its own.

Unable to respond to Zeman's confrontational policies, the coalition policies started adopting such policies of their own. Political life in the country inevitably suffered. Only 35% of eligible voters participated in the elections to the upper chamber of the parliament in November. Opinion polls showed that many people did not vote because they were disgusted with both politics and politicians.

In December, amid the atmosphere of political antipathy and apathy, Czech and German leaders initialed and, one month later, signed the long-awaited Czech-German declaration. Strongly opposed by the two nationalistic and xenophobic parties, the signing of that document marked the onset of the disintegration of the unholy opposition alliance. When the Czech parliament began discussing the declaration a few days later, the CSSD demanded an accompanying statement that would interpret the declaration, but it was not prepared to reject the document outright. Not least because the declaration provides for better relations with Germany and therefore paves the way toward the Czech Republic's integration into the EU-a goal whose most vocal proponent in the Czech Republic is none other than the CSSD.

Unable to form a united opposition front against the declaration, the two extremist parties have resorted to destructive political behavior. The Republicans burned the German flag during Chancellor Helmut Kohl's visit to Prague, with Republican leader Miroslav Sladek commenting publicly that more Germans should have been killed during World War II. Communists launched a petition drive against the declaration, and both parties resorted to parliamentary obstruction and filibusters, paralyzing the lower chamber. Republican deputies repeatedly offended government members during parliamentary debates, going so far as to call the government "a foreign body consisting of Jews, Poles, and descendants of Sudeten Germans." In the end, such attacks - together with Republicans' racist statements aimed mainly at Roma - proved too much even for Zeman.

In an unexpected meeting at the beginning of February, Zeman and Premier Vaclav Klaus agreed to join forces to fight extremists both within and outside the parliament . The meeting amounted to declaring war on extremists, drawing a line between the CSSD and the two extremist parties and making future cooperation among opposition parties difficult. Clearly, Zeman can no longer afford to be associated with political formations that have attacked basic principles of parliamentary democracy. A few days after the Zeman-Klaus meeting, President Vaclav Havel called the two extremist parties "enemies of democracy." The Czech-German declaration was approved by a comfortable majority, with all coalition and a majority of CSSD deputies voting in favor. All Communist and Republican deputies voted against the document t.

Although Czech politicians and media are currently preoccupied with the dangers of extremism, the good news is that the opposition split between extremist parties and the CSSD is likely to result in less confrontational CSSD policies and more consensus-seeking with the government. Such a development would significantly improve the political atmosphere in the country.

Moreover, the democratic parties seem to have finally found enough resolve to fight extremism, an objective that was difficult to achieve as long as the CSSD relied on extremists to pursue its political objectives. For the first time, the government is seriously considering banning the Republican Party, and most coalition and most CSSD deputies say they will vote in favor of lifting the immunity of those Republican deputies who have committed criminal offenses. Paradoxically, the current crisis could have a purifying effect on Czech politics, separating clearly democratic forces from those that seem intent on destroying democracy.

Reuters - 19. 2. 1997