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The rise of the christian democrats

Recent opinion polls show that the popularity of the Christian and Democratic Union/the People's Party (KDU-CSL) has significantly increased, while that of other parliamentary parties is either stagnating or declining. There are several reasons for the KDU-CSL's sudden success, the most important one being the political skills of party chairman Josef Lux.

Over the last few years, Lux-formerly a cooperative farmer--has become a truly professional, first-rate politician. His political style differs from the often combative or confrontational political behavior of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and opposition Social Democratic Party leader Milos Zeman. Lux is a man of compromise and of consensus-seeking. Those qualities became evident once again during the recent rail workers strike, when he repeatedly urged the government to negotiate and then stepped in himself after confrontational government officials found themselves with their backs to the wall. After negotiating an agreement with the unions within hours, Lux was praised by union leaders as the only politician who can be talked to.

Although he has repeatedly stressed that the KDU-CSL is a right-of-center party, Lux has, in fact, shifted his party into the political center. A close look at the KDU-CSL platform shows that the party defends some policies that could be described as rightist-for example, the large-scale restitution of Church property confiscated under the communist regime. In many areas, however, the KDU-CSL's policies are typically social democratic. The party rejects the liberal principles advocated by Klaus, favoring instead a social-market economy and solidarity based on Christian values.

The fact that the KDU-CSL straddles the political center has made it the subject of repeated speculation about its role in the coalition government. For the past five years, the KDU-CSL has been one of the coalition partners of Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), but both its program and Lux's non-confrontational behavior toward the Social Democrats (CSSD) suggest that both the party and its leader could easily switch sides. A secret document drawn up by Zeman for a an upcoming CSSD congress even suggests that the CSSD would like at some point to form a coalition government with the KDU-CSL. Lux was quick to reject that scenario when the document was leaked to the press, but the two parties clearly have more in common than the KDU-CSL has with its current coalition partners.

The KDU-CSL is and will continue to be a sought-after political partner by democratic parties of all stripes- not only because of its centrist image but also because it has a solid electoral base. Most practicing Catholics in southern Moravia and eastern Bohemia have voted for the KDU-CSL in the past. Thus, the party is certain to clear the 5% electoral hurdle in any elections in the foreseeable future and be represented in any future parliament. The same cannot be said about the ODS's other coalition partner--the Civic Democratic Alliance ODA, whose electoral base fluctuates. The extreme-right Republican Party may also be in danger of not clearing the electoral hurdle in future elections. Some political observers even suggest that only four parties--the ODS, the KDU-CSL, the CSSD, and the Communists--will be represented in a future parliament. As long as the unreformed Communist Party is an unacceptable coalition partner for the CSSD, the KDU-CSL will have a king-maker role not unlike that of the Free Democrats in Germany.

But relying heavily on the Catholic vote also set limits to the further growth of the KDU-CSL's popularity. Lux argues that the KDU-CSL is a modern Christian democratic party, similar to those in the West. In fact, its association with the Catholic Church is perceived as much closer than that of comparable parties in the West. At the same time, the Czech Republic is, traditionally, more secular than its Western neighbors. This poses a dilemma for Lux. If he wants to further expand the electoral base of his party, he needs to present it as a more secular party-a tempting but also dangerous proposition. Any visible distancing of the party from the Church could erode his party's solid electoral base and make it more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of political fortunes. But if he does not expand the party's electorate to include non-believers and individuals less closely associated with the Church, he will never become the country's prime minister as the leader of the most popular party.

The most important lesson that can be drawn from the KDU-CSL's growing popularity is that Czech voters are tired of constant political bickering and major political confrontations over minor issues. Lux's consensus-seeking style is an alternative. It is true that he can be accused of being spineless, of trying to make political capital out of any situation, or of not being an entirely reliable coalition partner. But his constant maneuvering is a political skill, too. Like many Western politicians today, he is simply less ideological and more pragmatical than either Zeman or Klaus.

Should Lux's and his party's political ascent continue, other major parties will soon need to ask themselves whether they, too, should have consensus-seeking politicians at the helm. Vaclav Klaus, Milos Zeman, or the founding fathers of the currently torn ODA are not such politicians, whereas the ODS's Josef Zieleniec, the CSSD's Petra Buzkova, and the ODA's Vladimir Dlouhy certainly qualify as such.

Reuters - 25. 2. 1997