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Czech Social democrats after labour victory in Britain

Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) chairman Milos Zeman sees the decisive victory of the Labour Party in Great Britain as a sign of things to come not only in other West European countries, such as Germany, but also in the Czech Republic. Zeman´s forecast , however, is problematic for a number of reasons--the chief one being that Zeman is no Tony Blair. In fact, the CSSD chairman resembles much more Neil Kinnock, whose politicial style, one can argue, was among the causes of Labour´s past electoral failures.

The Czech Republic is currently a country ripe for a political change. The right-of-center government was for months unable to address mounting economic problems and proliferating cases of fraud in the banking sector and investment funds. It had waited until mid-April to come up with a package of measures aimed at correcting the negative developments. But it failed to identify and replace government members responsible for troubled sectors.

As a result, the package is not likely to generate fresh political dynamism. Opinion polls show that only about one quarter of Czechs are satisfied with the political process in the country; and only some 45% trust the government.

Observers may be right when they describe the coalition government as tired and Prime MInister Vaclav Klaus himself as exhausted and devoid of new ideas.

It would seem that under such circumstances Zeman´s opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) are a natural replacement for Klaus´s right-of-center coalition. And indeed, had Milos Zeman followed the example of Tony Blair, he could now be close to assuming power. But Zeman´s combative style, a lack of tolerance for opponents within his party, and attempts to court voters of extremist parties have made him and his party difficult to accept by many Czech voters.

Just like it happened in Great Britain, the political battle in the Czech Republic between the CSSD and the right-of-center coalition should focus on centrist voters. But, instead of trying to appeal to such voters with a moderate approach and center-left policies, Zeman has scared many of them away with his radicalism. As a result, many Czech voters feel they currently do not have an alternative. They find it difficult to continue actively supporting the coalition parties but, at the same time, cannot in clear conscience give their support to the CSSD.

In other words, Zeman is too unpredictable. His virulent attacks on the ruling coalition are rarely accompanied by offering alternative economic and political ideas. Moreover, the CSSD´s current policies make it difficult for Josef Lux´s Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL)--currently a member of Klaus´s coalition--to accept the CSSD as a potential coalition ally. Without the KDU-CSL, however, Zeman cannot hope to form a government.

Zeman anticipates a crisis of major proportions--one that would radicalize the centrist voters to the point where even a more radical CSSD would become acceptable to them. However, no such crisis seems to be in the offing. The Czech economy is, despite all of its problems, still doing fairly well. In a comparative perspective, it still easily outperforms most other East European economies.

The coalition´s main problem is not a real (or potential) economic crisis. Rather, its main problem is that it procrastinated for too long with introducing corrective measures to its otherwise successful reforms as well as with putting more emphasis on the rule of law. It is likely that austerity measures that are part of the government´s package will further alienate some social groups. And it is likely that the already besieged government will come under pressure from such groups. Its ability to withstand such pressure is relatively low.

However, in order to be able to take over governing, the CSSD would need to trigger early elections in which it would win as decisively as Tony Blair´s Labor Party in Great Britain. Alternativley, it would need a modest victory accompannied by the willingness of the KDU-CSL to become the CSSD´s coaltion partner. What Zeman refuses to see is that centrist voters in Great Britain embraced the Labour Party partly because they had lost their fear that Labour would start a process of radical changes.

Czech voters do not have the same confidence in Zeman´s CSSD, despite the fact that, just like British voters did before the British elections, more and more people wish a change. When President Vaclav Havel recently said the public was in a "foul mood," he was, as usual, right. One reason for such a state of affairs is that most of those Czech voters, who describe themselves as centrist (which is now the largest groups of voters) have almost no alternatives.

They realize that economic and political reforms that started seven years ago need corrections. And they no longer trust the ruling coalition. But Zeman´s radical rhetoric makes them feel that the CSSD may want more than just "corrections." True, the examples of socialist parties that took over governing in Poland and Hungary show that radical preelection rhetoric often differs from such parties´ concrete policies after the elections. However, the critical mass of Czech voters seem to believe that Zeman, unlike Aleksandr Kwasniewski or Gyula Horn, may be as radical and unpredictable when in power as he is now.

Reuters - 5. 5. 1997