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Regional decentralization at issue

The issue of subdividing the Czech Republic into regions is a potential powder keg that may cause new political problems for the already besieged ruling coalition. There is almost no unity within the coalition on how to proceed with subdividing the country--or whether to proceed at all.

The two junior coalition parties--the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-CSL)--both want the state administration system to be decentralized as soon as possible. At the beginning of May, they made Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus´s Civic Democratic Party (ODS) agree that the coalition present a draft constitutional amendment on regional decentralization by the end of May.

However, problems started shortly afterwards. First , the ODA submitted its own proposal, without waiting for its coalition allies. Under the proposal, the country would be subdivided into 13 regions. KDU-CSL leaders were upset, accusing the ODA of breaking the coalition agreement. They then announced that the KDU-CSL may advocate only eight or nine regions. A few days later, the ODS leadership--reiterating some of its past concerns--said that before agreeing to move forward the party needs to know first how much the regional administration reform would cost. ODS leaders also argued that the small administrative districts into which the Czech Republic is currently divided should be abolished in case larger regions are set up.

Although the ODS says it is opposed to hasty reforms owing mainly to technical difficulties and the costs involved, the real reason increasingly seems to be the fact that in some of the proposed regions--in particular in Moravia and Northern Bohemia--the opposition Social Democratic Party (CSSD) is currently stronger than the ODS. And regional alliances between the KDU-CSL and the CSSD would take away from the ODS even more regions. This is clearly a prospect that the control-prone Vaclav Klaus does not cherish.

There are, however, political dangers for the ODS in its continued resistance to a regional reform. Several years ago, when the party clearly dominated Czech politics, having solid support in all regions of the country, the ODS´s arguments against regional reform were accepted by people at their face value. Currently, however, they are increasingly seen as insincere--as driven by the fear of losing political influence. The ODS´s political opponents--and even its coalition partners--are certain to use this argument in the coming months.

The two junior coalition parties have indicated they may fight for regional decentralization without the ODS--in fact, against it. But passing a constitutional amendment requires 120 votes in the 200-member lower chamber and 49 votes in the 81-member Senate. In order to succeed, they would need support not only from the CSSD but also from at least one of the two extremist parties in the lower chamber of the parliament. In the upper chamber, all non-ODS senators would need to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment.

However, it seems that some ODS deputies and senators are beginning to realize that further stonewalling by their party on decentralization could politically backfire; some of them have said they would support a constitutional amendment. They realize that postponing reforms any further could be counterproductive for a number of reasons. The Czech Constitution, adopted at the end of 1992, stipulates there be regions. The government is currently under a lot of pressure to pay more attention to the rule of law. It is certain that any further postponement would be used by the opposition to accuse the coalition, in particular the ODS, of disrespect for the constitution.

On a more general level, the Czech Republic´s democracy and political process need new dimensions. The current political impasse has been partly caused by the fact that the political process has been reduced to highly partisan struggles between several groups on the central level. President Vaclav Havel has repeatedly argued that democracy is in danger of degeneration without a viable civil society and without involving as many people in the political process as possible. Regional decentralization is increasingly seen as a way of involving more people in politics.

The ODS has been the primary obstacle to decentralization reforms since the establishment of the independent Czech Republic. Klaus said three years ago quite openly that he was afraid state administration would "unravel," should some of the central government´s powers be given to regions. Some other ODS leaders have argued that the country needs a strong central government during the period of radical economic reforms.

The ODS has also repeatedly stressed that the state administration reform will be expensive and that the division of powers between the regions and the central government needs to be clarified first. The coalition parties have been unable to agree not only on such technical issues but also on how many regions there should be. Over the years, proposals have ranged from creating two large regions to as many as 80.

Having learned from the ODS´s past stonewalling tactics on the issue, the two junior coalition parties managed to include in the coalition agreement signed by the three parties after the June 1996 elections that the regional administration reform be completed by the end of the current government´s four year tenure. However, the latest developments show that the ODS may keep its promises. The two junior coalition parties could then argue they do not feel bound by other provisions of the coalition agreement.

Reuters - 12. 5. 1997