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Floods may help the Klaus government

Huge floods that have claimed dozens of lives and caused huge property damages throughout eastern Bohemnia and Moravia may--paradoxically--help the besieged Czech government. Not only has the coalition government of Vaclav Klaus acted sfiftly and resolutely to release funds to the floods' victims; it has also managed to put aside--at least temporarily--many of the intra-coalition conflicts that plagued the government in the recent past.

Prior to the floods, the government had been under much pressure. It had been criticized by President Vaclav Havel for lacking a long-term vision. It had survived a vote of confidence in the parliament by only one vote. And the public's confidence in the government had dropped to some 20%. Any outbreak of labor unrest or another attack by currency speculators could have brought the weakened government down.

News of a quickly spreading natural catastrophe have had several effects. Most important, they have temporarily muted conflicts between the opposition and the coalition parties. The political truce, in turn, has made it possible for the government to act quickly and decisively without the hindrances it had faced since the elections in June 1996. The catastrophe has also galvanized the previously paralyzed government into action. Finally, the stream of bad news coming from the east of the country has forced many people to temporarily forget the political and economic problems the country had been preoccupied with before the floods.

In other words, the political crisis and economic problems that previously put the government on the defensive are suddenly dwarfed by a natural catastrophe of the magnitude unknown in the country's recent history. Under such conditions, the ability to improvise and react, rather than present long-term plans, appears to be more important. Paradoxically, what Havel has repeatedly criticized as the most serious shortcoming of the Klaus government--its proclivity for improvising--is suddenly its biggest asset.

At the outset of the floods, the government managed to release almost immediately some 900 million crowns aimed at helping the worst-affected victims. In the next few days--using the opposition's support in the parliament--the government came up with another 11 billion crowns. Some ministers, such as Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky and Interior Minister Jan Ruml, have worked hard to organize relief efforts and secure order in the flooded areas. The government has also authorized the army to send some 5,000 soldiers to participate in rescue efforts. In short, after months of paralysis, the Czechs can suddenly see an active and an efficient government.

A closer analysis of the way in which various state institutions performed during the natural disaster may reveal that the state was not sufficiently prepared for dealing with such a large-scale calamity. However, at the same time, the system has not broken down and appears to have contributed to saving many lives. The government is, at least in the short term, likely to politically benefit.

As calls for material and financial help proliferate, and as long-term solutions to dealing with the problems are sought, the government may--in a few months--again find itself under pressure. Its situation will be difficult. Even before the floods it had to introduce extensive austerity measures in order to improve the sagging economy's performance. Now it simply may not have the means to pay for the damages that--according to some estimates--exceed 50 billion crowns. Resorting to a deficit budget, new taxes, and foreign loans--things that the Klaus government has wanted to avoid--may be necessary.

On the other hand, the government will now be better able to deflect much of the opposition's attacks by urging--probably for months to come--a concerted political effort to deal with the damages caused by the floods. Trade unions, too, will find it difficult to press the government too hard over various labor concerns. It is almost certain that the government will dismiss any such attempts as "a lack of responsibility" on part of the unions.

In short, it will take at least a few months before politics in the country will be free again to develop outside the frame of reference created by the natural disaster. The government may want to use that time--as well as social energy generated by relief efforts and by solidarity with flood victims--to move ahead with projects that are not directly related to dealing flood damages. It may also have a more solid mandate to do so than until recently; given its performance during the calamity, the government's popularity may, at least temporarily, increase.

Reuters - 14. 7. 1997