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Czech Social democrats in search of direction

The Czech Republic's strongest opposition group, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), is currently struggling with internal discipline and a deepening rift between the followers of its controversial leader, Milos Zeman, and his opponents. The party congress, scheduled for March, is likely to turn into a major confrontation between Zeman's supporters and his opponents. The outcome of that battle will determine not only what kind of party the CSSD ultimately will be but also, most likely, who is going to lead it into the 21st century.

The CSSD has proved it can be a formidable opposition force; but it has not convinced the electorate it represents an alternative to the current government. The CSSD's controversial leader was for a long period of time equally both an asset and a liability to the party. His most recent steps, however, have made him more of a liability. His attempts to purge party dissidents and his opponents appear to be counterproductive in a country where the communist regime's purges are still well remembered. Given the fact the anti-Zeman opposition is fragmented, in the short run Zeman may succeed in consolidating his power; in the long run, his policies, unless stopped at the March congress, are likely to hurt the CSSD's image.

The CSSD's problems started shortly after the general elections in June 1996. The CSSD was the real winner of the elections, despite the fact it finished second behind Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Zeman's party surged from some 6% in popular support in 1992 to 26% in 1996, preventing the right-of-center coalition headed by Klaus from gaining a majority in the parliament. After the elections, Klaus managed to form a minority government supported by only 99 deputies in the 200-member parliament.

In June, it seemed the party's popularity could only grow, and that it was only the matter of time before the CSSD would govern the country. However, the CSSD has failed to live up to the expectations its impressive electoral showing generated. In the election campaign the CSSD was able to respond to the public's serious concerns over the state of the health, the education, and the housing sectors. However, opinion polls after the elections also indicated that many voters, in casting their vote for the CSSD, did not, in fact, vote for the CSSD but, rather, against the ODS, which had been accused of increasing "arrogance." In voting for the CSSD, many voters protested against the ODS's style and failures in particular areas but did not want radical changes in the country's reform policies.

The CSSD could have capitalized on its electoral success by acting as a constructive opposition force that has the country's stability in mind and is less arrogant than the ODS. Instead, Zeman opted for a different strategy. He accepted the post of parliament speaker in exchange for allowing Klaus to form the minority government and, subsequently, used the positions of both the parliamentary speaker and the CSSD chairman to pursue confrontational policies. In a country already destabilized by the deadlock produced by the elections, such policies had an unnerving effect on both the electorate and the coalition parties.

Zeman's confrontational policies have been partly driven by both his intense personal dislike of Klaus and his own vision of whom the CSSD should represent--a vision that differs from that of his opponents in the party. Zeman's CSSD would be a broadly-based group uniting everyone dissatisfied with the government's policies. Such a CSSD should, above all, be resolutely opposing the government or, as Zeman once put it, "going after the government's throat." Party moderates, led by Deputy Chairman Karel Machovec, would like the CSSD to become a moderate, center-left social democratic party, whose style is not confrontational and whose own program is more important than blind opposition.

Another conflict within the party emerged in December when the CSSD leadership expelled from the party two deputies who had voted in favor of the government's state budget, helping the budget to pass. One of the two deputies, Jozef Wagner, an influential figure within the party, has refused to accept the decision. On 12 January a local CSSD organization admitted him back to the party; subsequently, a district organization elected Wagner a delegate to the party congress in March. Wagner has vowed to challenge Zeman's policies.

The CSSD's popularity has decreased since June. Opinion polls indicate that many voters are opposed to confrontational policies represented by Zeman and the purges as the beginning of the CSSD's radicalization . Others are confused by the turmoil within the CSSD. Finally, a battle is raging within the CSSD over whether the party should be a broad post-communist forum of leftist forces or whether it should be defined more narrowly. Zeman, eager to expand the party's electoral base, has been repeatedly criticized by his opponents for flirting with the unreformed Communist Party. Most recently, Zeman announced that the CSSD will attempt to attract the voters who currently support the far-right Republicans and the Communists. That, of course, would mean moving even farther away from the image of a Western-style Social Democratic Party.

Reuters - 14. 1. 1997