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Is Czech social democracy a viable option to ruling coalition?

The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) is increasingly likely to lead the country's next government. Not only is the party leading in opinion polls by a rather large margin but its greatest rival--Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) is in turmoil. The ODS-led ruling coalition is disjointed. It may fall apart in the next few months.

Until recently, most Czechs saw a government dominated by the CSSD as an unappealing alternative to the current coalition. One of the reasons was the party's confrontational style, promoted and pursued by its chairman Milos Zeman. Zeman also tried to attract voters of the extremist parties with populist promises. The party was also seen as lacking qualified experts and charismatic personalities, who could form a government. The growing popularity of the party suggests that an increasing number of voters--perhaps as a result of their frustration over the coalition's policies--do no longer see such problems as being important enough.

But earlier this year, many voters found themselves in a political no man's land partly owing to Zeman's policies. As the coalition--and the ODS in particular--after last year's elections began increasingly to show signs of fatigue and inability to lead, voters were looking for alternatives. But many former coalition voters were afraid to cross over to the CSSD. They either kept changing their preferences between the coalition parties or resigned on politics. Opinion polls were showing that a majority of voters stopped trusting politicians and politics.

Zeman maintains that his strategy has been correct. He argues that his harsh criticism of the government was correct and that it was only the matter of time before the government's mounting failures would prompt voters to support the CSSD. Moderates in the party maintain that the unrepentant and arrogant coalition has been its own biggest enemy and that all the CSSD had to do was to offer a moderate, center-left alternative to the current government. Had it done so, many voters would have had little or no reason to resign on politics, as they would simply left the coalition parties in favor of the CSSD. The political crisis that swept the country in the Spring could have been avoided.

With CSSD preferences on the rise, it may difficult to determine which argument was correct. It seems, however, that there were other important reasons why Czech voters were hesitant to support the CSSD. One of them stems from Czech political culture and tradition, originating in the First Republic (1918-1938), which was known for political cautiousness and proclivity to solve political crises by behind-the-scenes negotiations, rather than early elections.

During the June government crisis, many people openly began saying that the government had made serious mistakes. Opinion polls showed that only 20% of Czechs supported the government. But, at the same, time, only a relatively small number of Czechs were in favor of a new government. Many leading intellectuals, political commentators, and regular voters were admitting the government was ineffective but, at the same time, warned that the CSSD-led alternative could be even worse.

This cautious approach is perhaps what distinguishes most clearly Czech political culture from those of Hungary and Poland. In Hungary, the political pendulum moved from the right to the left, when voters began to see the Antall government as ineffective. Poland has had several governments, both leftist and rightist, since 1989. In contrast, the Czech Republic is the only country in the post-communist Eastern Europe that has not experienced a radical government change. In the elections in 1992 one group of liberals merely lost power to another.

Seven years of continuity and a lack experience with changes of government have made many Czechs afraid of change. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus has skillfully used this phenomenon, frequently portraying the CSSD as a group dominated by disgruntled former reform communists, who are waiting for a chance to experiment with "third ways" or, even, to return reforms before 1989.

In reality, the CSSD is certainly not more radical--at least in its rhetoric--than, for example, the Polish and the Hungarian post-communists had been before they were elected. Being an opposition party is clearly not the same as being a government party. Some of the controversial measures proposed by the CSSD--such as introducing import tariffs--would probably be thoroughly reviewed, should the CSSD-led government have to defend such steps in Brussels.

While it is possible that a CSSD-led government could turn out to be even less successful than the current government, it seems that the change of government would be an important psychological experience for many Czechs. They would be able to see that such a change is not the end of democracy. Moreover, the ODS, in particular, could benefit from becoming an opposition party for a period of time. Some of the coalition's problems have been caused by the fact that it has become more interested in keeping power than in generating new ideas and energy.

Currently, communication channels between the coalition parties are blocked. The coalition is unable to motivate people and generate fresh political energy. The coalition parties will find next to the impossible to reinvent themselves while still in power. Conversely, the CSSD will find it difficult to behave more responsibly a long as it is only an opposition group.

Reuters - 22. 9. 1997