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Czech republic´s civic democratic alliance in crisis

The Czech Republic's smallest parliamentary party, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), is currently experiencing internal problems that threaten both the stability of the ruling coalition and the country. The problems started when ODA chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Jan Kalvoda, who was also the Justice Minister, unexpectedly resigned from his government posts in December, in response to the fact that he had falsely used a Doctor of Law degree.

Following the parliamentary elections in June 1996, the ODA formed a minority government together with Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Josef Lux's Christian Democratic Union/Peoples' Party (KDU-CSL). The same coalition had governed the country between 1992 and 1996 but had a comfortable majority in the parliament during that period.

In the June elections, the ODA gained only 6.3% of the popular vote, which translated into 13 seats in the 200-member lower chamber. Although the ODA had barely cleared the 5% electoral hurdle, which is necessary for gaining seats in the lower chamber, its leaders skillfully used the fact that the ODS needed the smallest party's support much more than in 1992, to be able to form a government. In negotiating the coalition agreement, both the ODA and the KDU-CSL managed to force the ODS into making major concessions. Between them, the two junior coalition parties managed to gain the same number of ministries that the ODS took. In the previous government, the ODS had one more ministry than the two parties together, frequently overruling them in government meetings.

The new coalition arrangement increased the two parties' influence. At the same time, this made the government--already under constant pressure from the majority opposition--more vulnerable. Problems within any of the three coalition parties--regardless of their size, could grow into a government crisis affecting the entire country. Since June, the coalition has repeatedly shown signs of strain and internal disagreements, but the three parties have so far managed to overcome mutual conflicts.

A real test came after Kalvoda's resignation from his government posts. The ODA, owing to its relative smallness, can hardly afford any internal turmoil that could result in a loss of voters. In fact, even before Kalvoda's resignation, observers had repeatedly urged the ODA to consider merging with the ODS rather than to risk it will not clear the 5% electoral hurdle in the next elections. ODA founders have refused such an option, despite the fact the programs of both parties are very similar. One reason is that the ODA was formed, and has developed, as a party of people who, in essence, follow the same political objectives as the ODS but cannot work with authoritative Vaclav Klaus.

Kalvoda's resignation has uncovered significant rifts within the ODA. Kalvoda, who is expected to resign from the post of ODA chairman, has successfully bridged differences between two wings in the party--that of the ODA founders, who do not wish a merger with the ODS, and that of pragmatists, who are not entirely opposed to such an idea. The earlier is represented by politicians such as Pavel Bratinka and Daniel Kroupa; the latter is represented by Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Dlouhy and Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky.

Dlouhy, who was only recently replaced by Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec in popularity polls as the country's most popular politician, would be a logical choice to replace Kalvoda. However, Dlouhy's communist past makes such a solution unacceptable to some ODA leaders--mainly those who represent the other wing.

Kalvoda's resignation clearly caught the ODA by surprise. It has taken the party almost a month to come up with a nominee for the post of Justice Minister. At the beginning of January , the ODA leadership proposed Vlasta Parkanova, a relatively unknown female politician who currently heads a department at the Internal Affairs Ministry. While Parkanova was on 6 January approved by the ODA's coalition partners, her nomination has caused conflicts within the party itself. One of the most vocal critics of the nomination has been Roman Ceska, head of the National Property Fund, who is seen as Dlouhy's supporter. The depth of disagreements within the ODA has been further underlined by the fact that the nomination of a new deputy prime minister has been postponed until the party's March congress.

The conflict between the two wings is expected to come to a head at the congress congress, which is also supposed to elect a new party leader. There are very few politicians who may be able to bridge differences between the two wings. One name frequently mentioned is that of Michael Zantovsky, the outgoing Czech Ambassador to the United States, who has recently been elected to the upper chamber of the Czech parliament, the Senate. Zantovsky was formerly the spokesman for, and a close associate of, President Vaclav Havel. Some ODA leaders hope that the party could benefit from being associated with the tremendously popular president; others, however, see Zantovsky as an outsider. It is possible that, in the end, the ODA will not have any good options. Rather it may be forced to chose between a lesser and a greater evil: the only way to prevent the party from splitting may be to reelect Kalvoda.

Should the ODA not survive its current problems, the political landscape in the country would change significantly, and the ruling coalition would be in danger of disintegration. Therefore, the ODA's coalition partners will try to be as forthcoming in helping the ODA overcome its problems as possible. Until the ODA restores itself as a credible political subject, the future of the minority government hangs in the balance.

Reuters - 7. 1. 1997