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Realignment of Czech political spectrum

The Czech Republic's major political parties are in flux. More than five years after the elections in 1992, which established what seemed to be a stable political party arrangement, the country's two major right-of-center civic parties--the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA)--have recently experienced internal turmoil, which is likely to generate changes within those political subjects. But such changes are not entirely limited to the civic-right parties. The Social Democratic Party (CSSD) , which currently leads in popularity polls, has also experienced problems.

The two civic parties--which have formed the backbone of the coalition government in the last five years--are currently internally unstable mainly because of different views of various groups within each of the two parties on how to deal with mounting economic and political problems. Discontent within the CSSD, on the other hand, has been generated by success; namely, by differing views on how the party should behave in light of its growing popularity with voters and the likelihood of taking over the government at some point.

CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman, who has been trying to build a party with a broad electoral base and populist appeal, was able to fend off attacks by his moderate, centrist-oriented opponents at the party's congress in March. But Zeman's opponents have continued their attacks on Zeman after the congress. Several members of the CSSD's leadership recently banded together to recall from his post the party's chief manager--a Zeman protege, who under the communist regime served as a high-ranking communist party member.

Zeman recently warned that the increasingly successful CSSD is being threatened by a revolt of "the incompetent and those who are capable of anything." He also warned that the party, with its poorly developed network of local organizations and relatively small membership, is likely to be a loser in the local government elections in the fall 1998. Zeman may be right but his warnings seem to have been prompted by the fact he increasingly finds himself isolated within the party leadership. The continuation of the internal conflict between Zeman and his supporters on the one hand, and his opponents, on the other, could eventually threaten the stability of the party and lead to new developments in the Czech Republic's democratic Left.

The problems of the ODS and the ODA are more profound. The two parties, which only 18 months ago exuded confidence, are desperately searching for answers to mounting economic and political problems. They at first gradually distanced themselves from the third coalition party--the Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL)--which has rejected the two civic parties' liberal ideology in favor of a social market economy. The coalition is now being maintained more for tactical reasons than for reasons of ideological proximity of the three parties.

However, fierce debate on how to address economic and political problems has erupted also within each of the two civic parties. Debate within the ODA has been generated by growing differences between pragmatists, led by ODA Chairman Michael Zantovsky, and ideological "fundamentalists," who claim both the party and the government have betrayed the principles of liberalism. Beyond the facade of such arguments, however, there are personal animosities--some party founders have not been able to come to terms with the fact that they have been defeated by the Zantovsky-led group at a recent party congress.

The ODS, which until recently had been firmly controlled by Prime Minister and ODS chairman Vaclav Klaus, has been shaken by a recent report of its deputy chairman Miroslav Macek, who wrote that the party has grown ossified and is responsible for many of the country's problems. Macek urged a return to more active transformation policies.

In another development, the ODS executive committee, recently sharply criticized the party's top leaders, demanding that they regularly give an account of their activities to the committee. It also threatened to recall those leaders, whose performance will not improve. The committee's actions represented a direct challenge to Vaclav Klaus. and, thus, to the unity of the party. Since many ODS members joined the party because of Klaus, they may go too, should the prime minister go.

Clearly, both civic parties could soon split. One possible scenario under such circumstances may be an attempt by the cores of the two parties to merge and to create a strong right-of-center civic party. Should the fundamentalists within the ODA gain the upper hand at the party's upcoming conference (called to decide whether Zantovsky should continue leading the party), two right-wing civic political parties may continue to exist side by side: one staunchly adhering to the principles of liberalism and another pursuing more centrist policies while being more pro-active than the current ODS.

In general terms, the current movement within the ODS and the ODA represents the beginning of a realignment of the civic right. The process may accelerate even while the two parties are still in power. It is certain to do so if the current government falls and the civic parties find themselves in the opposition. In fact, being separated from power for a period of time may be exactly what the increasingly disoriented civic right needs to reorganize itself and define better than now its ideology and policies.

Reuters - 8. 10. 1997