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Czech President changes his style

Czech President Vaclav Havel has in recent weeks become more vocal in expressing his misgivings about various political and social ills. The change in Havel's style coincides with his recovery from a life-threatening surgery in December. Although Havel indeed said after the surgery that, in facing death, he had reordered his life priorities, it seems his changing political behavior is also connected to the worsening political climate in the country.

In recent weeks, Havel has harshly criticized some other Czech politcians, including Parliament Speaker Milos Zeman for what the president saw as irresponsible acts. He has spoken about "the suffocating atmosphere" in society, putting much of the blame on bad political culture among both opposition and coalition politicians. After his return from vacation in Belgium, Havel told Czechs that they tend to have inflated opinions of themselves. Abroad, he argued, the country is often perceived as a place where, for example, you can get easily robbed or pickpocketted.

In the foreign policy area, Havel's recent statement describing Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar as "paranoid" is something that would have been difficult to hear from the cautious president only six months ago. His statement has further strained already cold Czech-Slovak relations.

Czechs have not entirely embraced Havel's new style. Opinion polls suggest that the president's popularity has droped by some 10 percent since December. True, his popularity ratings are stil astoundingly higg--around 70%--but some people have apparently found it difficult to accept a Havel who is more like them. In the past, Havel kept a distance between himself other politicians, speaking usually in general, semi-philosophical terms about the most urgent problems. The fact he kept a distance from day-to-day politics made him less vulnerable to criticism. On the orher hand, it also made him less listened to. Czechs came to see him as someone who most often speaks only about matters of global importance but rarely about the most pressing issues in Czech politics that immediately affect them.

Opinion polls show that many Czechs have not come to terms with Havel marrying actress Dasa Veskrnova, only a year after the death of his first wife, Olga. Havel has reacted by being more open about his personal life. It seems, however, that in his openess the president has gone too far on several occassions. For example, he recently publicly suggested that his sister-in-law, Dasa Havlova, is probably insane. Havel reacted to Havlova's sharp criticism of his unwillingness to sell her his half of the Lucerna Palace, built by his father before World War II.

Czechs seem to be confused by Havel's new role. Above all, they seem to be finding it difficult to accept Havel as one of them. A number of, sometimes nasty, jokes that have emerged about Havel's new wife, indicate, above all, that people are uneasy about a president who does no longer have the image of an intellectually superior moral beacon but has also real weaknesses. This confusion among the public is partly a result of Havel's own behavior in the past. He consiciously cultivated the image of a philosopher on the throne, unaffected by usual human vices. A number of stories about Havel's private life of course circulated. But they had remained in the realm of myths until Havel changed his style

Despite Havel's moral authority, his political powers were curtailed in 1992 when a new Czech Constitution was being written. Major political parties at that time, in particular Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus' Civic Denmocratic party, felt that the president should be mainly a ceremonial figure and that the most important powers in the executive branch should be givent to the government, and the prime minister in particular.

Owing both to his moral authority and the fact the Constitution is "elastic" with redard to the president's powers, Havel has continued to stretch the limits of his powers. But in 1992-1994, his occasional conflicts with Klaus remained confined to the area of foreign policy. Havel, probably the single most important Czech "export" article, would not let himself be pushed to the sidelines in an area where he played such a crucial role.

He started playing a more important role in domestic politics in 1994 when he openly challenged Klaus over the concept of civil society--which the prime minister rejects as false. Havel has also actively campaigned for the decentralization of state administration or the creation of ombudsman. But as long as Klaus's coalition had a majority in the parliament, his various suggestions were either ignored or rejected

His role in domestic politics changed radically after the last June general elections, which resulted in a political deadlock. Overnight, Havel became the most important political player, who managed to negotiate a deal between the opposition and the coalition. Afterwards, he again assumed his role of a rather removed non-partisan observer and an occasional moral preacher.

Although it is clear that Havel's new strategy since January makes him more vulnerable to criticism, it also makes him politically more effective. Czechs seem to be in need of moral guidance in a period of increasing social problems. When such guidance came from a president standing high above the rest of society, it was usually recorded with reverence but, at the same time, had little practical effect. Havel as a politcian who is perceived as more "human" is also likely to be more listened to. His new style, which some commentators see as a weakness, thus may be his strenght.

Reuters - 8. 4. 1997