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Two party congresses to watch

The upcoming congresses of the opposition Social Democratic Party (CSSD), to be held on 15-16 March, and of the coalition Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), to be held on 22-23 March, will be important political events. Both parties will elect new leaders; and the personalities and political styles of those leaders will shape the image of each of the two parties.

The CSSD, currently the second strongest party in the country, hopes the congress will boost its chances of replacing Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS) as the strongest party in the country. The ODA, on the other hand, is the smallest parliamentary party that barely cleared the five percent electoral hurdle in the June 1996 general elections. Its congress will determine whether the party will survive as a parliamentary group.

Both parties have experienced internal conflicts in the last few months. CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman's efforts to eliminate his opponents within the party and to steer the party toward a more populist approach have caused internal disunity. Zeman's opponents argue that the CSSD should be a center-left party similar to the social democratic parties that exist in the West; as such, it should strive to attract centrist votes and play the role of constructive opposition.

However, under Zeman's leadership, the CSSD has pursued highly confrontational policies vis-a-vis the minority coalition government. In doing so, the party has had to rely on tacit support of the unreformed Communists and the far-right Republicans in the parliament. However, as the two parties behavior has become increasingly undemocratic, Zeman has found it more and more difficult to rely on their support. Instead, he recently announced he will try to broaden the CSSD's electoral base by trying to attract the voters who currently support the Republicans and the Communists.

The CSSD congress will, therefore, determine whether the CSSD will move closer to the political center or whether it will become a broadly-based populist party. Zeman's position currently seems to be unshakable. CSSD Deputy Chairman Karel Machovec, who is advocating centrist policies, has announced that at the congress he will compete for the post of chairman, against Zeman. His chances of winning, however, appear to be slim. Another advocate of centrist policies, CSSD Deputy Chairman Petra Buzkova, has not even been nominated for the post of chairman. She will try to defend her current post, but Zeman has made it clear that he would prefer people who are loyal to him in the posts of deputy chairmen.

Zeman's strategy could easily turn out to be a miscalculation. While the CSSD may, indeed, be able to attract some of the voters who currently support the extremist parties, it already seems to be losing centrist voters. Rising popularity of the centrist Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL), a member of the ruling coalition, suggests that centrist voters are abandoning the CSSD. In a document prepared for the congress, Zeman sees the KDU-CSL as a potential coalition ally in the future. But while the KDU-CSL could conceivably form a coalition with a center-left CSSD, it could hardly afford to cooperate closely with a more radical and populist CSSD Zeman is attempting to create.

Zeman and other CSSD leaders have recently announced that in light of what they see as a deepening economic crisis in the country, the CSSD is prepared to take over the government. This seems to be mainly political posturing before the congress. In reality, the CSSD is not strong enough to form a government on its own. And Zeman's policies will make it increasingly difficult for the CSSD to form a coalition with any other party in the near future.

The ODA faces a different set of problems. It probably has the most coherent party platform of all parliamentary parties, but it has been visibly split into two wings since its charismatic chairman, Jan Kalvoda, resigned form his post in December. Trade and Industry Minister Vladimir Dlouhy, one the most popular politicians in the country, would be a logical choice to replace Kalvoda. The ODA founders, however, oppose Dlouhy because of his communist past, his pragmatic views, and willingness to work closely with the ODS. As a result, Dlouhy has been reluctant to run for the post of ODA chairman.

Five politicians have announced their candidacy for the post of chairman. Three of them-Daniel Kroupa, Karel Ledvinka, and Libor Kudlacek--are considered opponents of Dlouhy. Should any of them be elected, Dlouhy and other pragmatists could decide to leave--a step that would probably doom the small party. One of the two other candidates, Environment Minister Jiri Skalicky, who is viewed as a compromise candidate, lacks charisma. The best chance to become ODA chairman is therefore given to an outsider--Michael Zantovsky, a former Czech Ambassador to the United States. Zantovsky, who won a Senate seat on the ODA ticket in the fall and is a close associate of President Vaclav Havel, could indeed revitalize the party, which he joined only recently. He is not associated with any of the two warring factions within the party; and he does not lack charisma.

Zantovsky's outsider status has, however, been already criticized by some of the ODA founders. Should he fail to be elected, the ODA, under the leadership of any of the other four candidates, would be in real danger of disappearing form the parliament. Such a development would,of course, play into the hands of the CSSD and hurt the ruling coalition. The ODA congress will, therefore, be watched closely not only by ODA followers.

Reuters - 11. 3. 1997