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Prime minister Vaclav Klaus's party in trouble

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus is in trouble. Recent opinion polls suggest that the party's popularity has dropped below 20%. The ODS is now trailing its biggest rival, the opposition Social Democrats, by 7-8%. In the context of other political developments in the country, the sharp decline in ODS popularity is not the kind of news the ODS can afford to ignore. No easy remedies appear to be in sight.

The ODS's situation is precarious especially in light of other opinion polls that indicate that an increasing number of people are dissatisfied with the government and the political situation in the country. The fact that the other two coalition parties did not suffer a decline in popularity, probably means that a growing number of people associate the ODS, in particular, with various recent political and economic ills.

This comes as no surprise. Between 1992 and 1996, the ODS dominated the coalition and the government, frequently overruling its coalition partners--the Christian Democrats and the Civic Democratic Alliance--on important issues. It has always claimed to be the engine of the transformation process, often "appropriating" successes for which its two junior coalition partners also deserved a credit. Now that the transformation process has experienced problems, the ODS is seen as being responsible for economic and political failures.

The ODS's declining popularity probably also means that the public has not embraced the package of measures that the government recently announced in an effort to "correct" negative economic developments. The fact the package was not accompanied by radical personal changes in the government is now backfiring--and, once again, affecting adversely mainly the ODS.

The failure to replace Finance Minister Ivan Kocarnik, a close of associate of Klaus, appears to be the biggest tactical mistake of the ODS. Kocarnik is seen as bearing political responsibility for the growing number of scandals in the financial sector. Christian Democratic Union Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Josef Lux has clearly scored with the public when he repeatedly complained about the coalition's failure to replace key ministers when the package was announced. The polls show that the popularity of his party has increased.

For the ODS, the worst news behind its declining popularity must, however, be that such a development is at least partly tied to Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus himself. Observers now openly describe Klaus as tired and devoid of new ideas. He generates little enthusiasm among Czech voters. The ODS, however, does not have a good replacement for Klaus. The party was created by Klaus--as Klaus's party. Without Klaus, or with Klaus significantly weakened, the ODS could easily become a battlefield of several factions, perhaps even falling apart. In fact, indications exist that such an intra-party struggle has already begun.

Officially, the ODS has always subscribed to the ideas of economic and political liberalism. In reality, however, there has always been a large gap between the official ideological line of the party and its practical policies. One reason is that many ODS members are in fact non-ideological technocrats, administrators, and businessmen who joined the party because they saw it as a vehicle for gaining influence. Many opportunists, who joined the party when its position seemed to be unshakable, may now leave it.

The ODS will find very difficult to generate fresh dynamism. In the last twelve months, the party has had four important chances to do so, but missed all of them. The first chance came after the ODS-led coalition failed to win the elections in 1996. ODS Deputy Chairman Josef Zieleniec tried to initiate an internal party discussion about the causes of the electoral defeat but the debate quickly stopped when it was not endorsed by Klaus.

The party had another chance in the early fall of 1996 when scandals in the banking sector and investment funds began to proliferate. But instead of acknowledging responsibility and offering remedies, the ODS adopted a defensive attitude. The ODS's congress in December represented another wasted chance to deal sincerely with problems. The last chance was the government's package of measures announced in mid-April. The ODS again failed to admit political responsibility and offer a more daring vision of the future.

At this point, the party does not seem to have enough inner dynamism to undergo the process of political regeneration--as long as it stays in the government. When it was established in 1991, it was known as a party of action that pressed ahead with daring reforms. But by 1994 it became a party of the state, whose main interest was to preserve its power and influence. It seems the ODS has a chance to revive itself only if it became an opposition party whose various ties to the state and influential posts in the economy would be severed.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 19. 5. 1997