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How the Klaus government lost its glow

The recently announced reshuffle of the Czech government is an attempt by the ruling, three-party coalition to gain some fresh political dynamism and to prevent political crisis in the country from escalating into social and economic crises. Although some analysts and opposition politicians argue that the country is, in fact, already experiencing an economic crisis and, even, a crisis of the entire post-1989 system, a more sober look at the situation in the country suggests that problems are still mainly political. However, if the current political instability is not overcome soon, the crisis could indeed become more profound. The recent attack by currency speculators on the Czech crown confirms such a prediction.

What has happened in a country that, only a year ago, was seen as a front runner of economic reforms and an island of political stability in the post-communist world? The answer, on the most general level, is that politics as one of the most important ways in which a democratic system expresses itself and communicates within itself has, for a number of reasons, degenerated into mindless confrontation. Leading political actors are unable to communicate with each other and, most importantly, with the public. Unable to agree on long-term solutions both within the coalition and with the opposition, the coalition parties--and their government--have lost the ability to lead. Reacting to such leadership crisis, President Vaclav Havel recently noted that the government has no concept, no vision. In his view, it only improvises--moving from one Wednesday to the next (government meetings are held on Wednesday).

The coalition--consisting of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats of Josef Lux, and the Civic Democratic Alliance of Michael Zantovsky--began losing its dynamism already in 1993-1994. The three parties had won a comfortable majority in the parliament in the elections in June 1992. The opposition was fragmented and disunited. As a result, the coalition was able to push through the parliament its policies and draft laws, regardless of what the opposition thought of them. The communication breakdown between the coalition and the opposition started at this time.

At the same time, the coalition itself was dominated by Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party which frequently disregarded the view of the two junior coalition partners. For example, the government reached important decisions by voting. Since Klaus´s party had a majority of ministrial seats it was able to overrule its coalition partners when it needed to. As a result, relations within the right-of center coalition were often strained.

In the absence of an independent, non-partisan system of state administration and a developed civil society that could somewhat separate the coalition parties from the state, the parties--and the Civic Democratic Party in particular--began growing together with the state. Havel warned already three years ago of a situation in which political parties "own the state." He also repeatedly warned Czech parties against sliding into mindless partisanship which prevents from formulating and pursuing broader visions.

The government, known for its ability to move ahead with radical reforms, gardually lost its ability to do so. The three parties became more interested in preserving their political positions as well as positions in the state administration system rather than advocating radical reforms that could have politically backfired. They began thinking about the next elections about two years too early.

Despite the fact that some important privatization and reform projects were not completed, Premier Klaus--with his mind set on the 1996 elections--in 1995 repeatedly told the public that the transformation process in the country is basically over; or, in his words, that the country has emerged from a surgery room and is now in a rehabilitation center. This rhetoric worked well abroad, where Czech leaders were able to "sell" the country´s good macroeconomic performance and political stability as a Czech economic miracle. At home, however, Klaus´s words created a crisis of expectations. Most people would have probably been willing to grant the government a few more years of "belt-tightening," just like they did when Klaus asked them to do so in 1992.

It was partly the feeling that the transformation process was over that prompted many voters to vote in the June 1996 election for the opposition Social Democrats, who promised a more equal distribution of the country´s wealth. But it was also the increasing inability of the coalition parties to communicate with the public as well as their increasing arrogance.

The electoral defeat of the coalition-- even though only by a margin of two seats-- triggered a number of developments that had a further negative impact on Czech politics. Most important, despite its victory, the opposition remained fragmented and was unable to form a coalition government. The coalition agreed to form a minority government but, following four years of dominance, quickly proved to be incapable of governing under constant pressure. The coalition, and the Civic Democratic Party in particular, adopted a highly confrontational style of the opposition Social Democrats. Unable to push unfinished reform projects through a deadlocked parliament, the coalition fought a number of useless battles with the opposition over trivial issues. Moreover, many conflicts had a personal dimension--they were clashed between Klaus and Social democratic leader Milos Zeman who intensely dislike each other.

Under the pressure from the opposition, a number of banking and financial scandals began to surface in the fall of 1996. The coalition government could have used such scandals as an opportunity to reflect on some of its past failures, such a lack of attention it had paid to the rule of law and to the transparency of capital markets. It, however failed to do so, rejecting any political responsibility for a growing number of scandals, By November 1996, opinion polls were showing that many people are disgusted with politics and politicians. Only some 30% of voters cast their votes in the Senate elections in November.

Under pressure, Klaus´s party attempted in the second half of 1996 to start an intra-party discussion, but attempts to introduce radical changes failed. The party had become too ossified and was too closely tied with Vaclav Klaus. Most party members were afraid that replacing Klaus could result in the party´s disintegration.

Worsening macroeconomic indicators--growing budget and trade deficits in particular--prompted the government to announce a package of measures designed to stem the negative economic developments. It was the first major decision in many months that the paralyzed government. However, following almost a year of a leadership crisis, it apparently came too late for the government to be able to generate any new political dynamism. Morover, the package was half-hearted in that no personnel changes in the government were announced simultaneously. This was a major deficiency of the project: the government, on the one hand, for the first time admitted major mistakes and failures, but at the same time failed to identify and replace ministers presiding over the most troubled areas.

The public´s reaction was predictable. By mid-May, the public´s trust in the government has declined to an all-time low of some 38%. Various opinion polls indicate that only 10% of people think the transformation process has been successful and over 70% are dissatisfied with the political situation in the country. According to the most recent polls, the popularity of Klaus´s party has dropped sharply, below 20%, while the opposition Social Democrats now command some 28% in popular support. President Havel has said the public is a "fould mood" and the atmosphere in the country is "suffocating."

The reshuffle of the government, which followed one month after announcing the package, is not likely to salvage the ailing coalition for several reasons. Most important, it has come too late and only under extreme pressure from the public. And it is--like, so many recent steps of this government--only a cosmetic measure. The mood in the country is such that perhaps only a resignation of the entire government and naming of a new government that would present a new program to the parliament could still save this coalition . Most likely, such a government would have to be headed by someone else than the increasingly unpopular Vaclav Klaus.

Political analysts in the country agree that a mere government reshuffle most likely means that the country is head for early elections. Not only that the coalition government is increasingly unpopular and that the cosmetic changes are not likely to improve its image at this point. The coalition itself is increasingly disjointed. Josef Lux´s Christian Democrats, whose program is basically social democratic, have increasingly been distancing themselves from the two civic parties, gaining, as a result, in popularity polls. They are now poised to leave the government and join forces with the Social Democrats at the first sign of serious trouble.

World Street Journal - 30. 5. 1997