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Czech ruling coalition seeks new dynamism

In recent months, the Czech coalition government--consisting of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), and the Christian and Democratic Union/People's Party--has been repeatedly accused of being either unwilling or unable to push ahead with important reforms. In the June 1996 elections, the coalition gained only 99 seats in the 200-member lower chamber of the parliament. The country is no longer considered the most-daring reformer in the former communist bloc owing mainly to the decision-making paralysis since last June

But the coalition now has a chance to go ahead with important reforms­in particular in the health care, transportation, educational, energy, and housing sectors. A series of events in recent weeks, culminating in a defection of two opposition deputies to the coalition side (a development giving the coalition a de facto parliamentary majority), signal a swing of the political pendulum back to the coalition parties' camp. However, to regain voters, the coalition would have to use the newly-gained momentum not only to start reforms but also significantly improve its communication with people and the opposition--that is, its political style

Achieving that will not be easy becasue most of the coalition's problems did not start after the elections. The coalition had, in fact, lost much of its dynamism and energy already some two years ago. One reason was that the coalition parties began prematurely thinking about the next elections, worrying that unpopular measures would upset voters. Another reason was that the three parties, facing a weak and fragmented opposition, governed without much pressure and lost touch with reality. Since opinion polls showed the coalition would easily win the elections, coalition parties believed they would have enough time to introduce necessary reforms after the elections. Finally, the coalition parties, in particular the ODS, experienced internal ossification once they became accustomed to governing. Daring ideas and bold transformation measures were increasingly viewed with suspicion by party leaders. Holding onto power became more important than pursuing reforms.

But despite the slow-down of reforms, the coalition lost the elections mainly because of its style of government. Certain of victory and unchallenged by a strong opposition, the coalition parties­and, again, the ODS in particular­became increasingly arrogant. Discussing policies with the public or the opposition was avoided.

The surprising defeat of the coalition in the elections ushered in a period of muddling through. It appeared that the opposition would block all radical reforms until the deadlock was resolved by early elections. The significantly weakened coalition had little incentive to press forward with the reforms that it did not have the courage to undertake when it had a comfortable majority. And, indeed, in the first eight months after the elections, the coalition parties were paralyzed. Their only major victory was the approval by the parliament of the 1997 state budget. That close victory, however, started a series of developments leading to the current change in the balance of political power.

The government was able to win the budget battle only because two Social Democratic Party (CSSD) deputies voted in favor of the budget. Angered CSSD chairman Milos Zeman managed to persuade the party to expel both dissenters. One of the deputies, Tomas Teplik, recently joined the ODS caucus; as a result, the opposition and coalition have an equal number of seats. The other dissenting deputy, Jozef Wagner, announced he would not officially join any coalition party but would vote with the coalition. Thus, the coalition has, in effect, regained its parliamentary majority.

The CSSD has also found it increasingly difficult to ally itself with the other two opposition parties--the far left Communists and the far-right Republicans. Following those parties' attempts to paralyze the parliament during its debate on the Czech-German declaration, the CSSD joined forces with the coalition parties in an effort to fight extremism. This drove a wedge between the CSSD and the other two opposition parties. Zeman announced that he will try to attract voters of the two parties. Meanwhile, the ODA, at its recent congress, changed its leadership, looked critically at past failures, and announced it would push for reforms. Its new vitality may positively affect the other two coalition parties.

The next few weeks will show whether the coalition parties have enough resolve and energy to overcome the decision-making paralysis of recent months and change their political style. Czechs can only hope that the coalition will be able to regain some of its lost dynamism and credibility and push forward with measures that may be unpopular but are necessary to prevent the economy and society from continuing to drift. Should the coalition fail to do either, the Czech Republic may be headed for serious trouble

Under normal conditions, a government that loses the respect of voters is replaced by another one. In the Czech Republic, however, the radicalization of the CSSD virtually rules out the possibility of its forming a government as an alternative to the current one. In fact, the popularity of the CSSD has been decreasing at a time when the right-of-center government has been struggling. The coalition government's failure to motivate voters could therefore consolidate a political vacuum that is an open invitation to extremists.

Reuters - 1. 4. 1997