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Whither Czech Social democracy?

Even after its congress, held in Bohumin on 14-16 March, the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) is far from being united over the political course advocated by its leader, Milos Zeman. The congress reelected Zeman as CSSD chairman and endorsed his confrontational policies vis-a-vis the center-right coalition government. But roughly one third of the delegates at the congress supported Zeman's chief opponent in the party, Karel Machovec, an advocate of non-confrontational centrist policies. And about one third of the delegates--12 percent more than two years ago--failed to support Zeman's candidacy for party chairmanship.

In the end, Machovec was not reelected a deputy chairman of the party. But given the fact that Zeman controlled the preparation of the congress, the number of party members who subscribe to Machovec's views may be even greater than the voting at the congress indicated. Only one of the five deputy party chairmen elected at the congress is known to be Zeman's close ally. Two others were elected mainly because they had strong support among delegates from Moravia. Zeman's main defeat was the reelection of Petra Buzkova as a deputy chairman. She has been publicly opposed to some of Zeman's policies. At the same time, the congress failed to elect as a deputy chairman Zeman's close ally, Jana Volfova. The congress also rejected a report prepared by CSSD financial manager Ivan Havlicek, Zeman's close ally, who revealed that the party had accumulated a large debt.

Despite the partial defeats, Zeman and his supporters won battles over the most important issues at the congress, such as the political strategy of the party. But by banking so openly on confrontational policies, Zeman has made himself vulnerable. His future at the helm of the CSSD may hinge on whether his strategy will succeed, resulting in taking over the government. Analysts may be right when they assume that Zeman's strategy could, in fact, be a miscalculation and could backfire in a number of ways.

True, the country faces mounting economic and social problems. As a result, many centrist voters would probably look for an alternative to the current ruling coalition, should early elections be called. A centrist-oriented CSSD would represent such an alternative. Zeman, however, wants to attract chiefly voters of the far-right Republican Party and the far-left Communist Party. Those two parties won some 18 percent of the popular vote in the general elections last June. To attract the two parties' voters, the CSSD has begun to opt for a combination of populist promises and radical anti-government policies. Even such a strategy can, however, attract only some, not all, Republican and Communist voters.

Unless the CSSD can expand into the political center--as demanded by Zeman's opponents--it is not clear how it could win enough popular support to be able to form a government any time soon. In fact, as opinion polls indicate, the party's popularity has steadily declined since the last June elections. Zeman made clear at the congress that he is counting on a social crisis of major proportions that would result in a radicalization of voters and, consequently, in major shifts of voting preferences. . However, while there are indications that the country is experiencing problems, it does not seem to be on the brink of a truly profound social crisis that Zeman expects. Some slowdown in economic growth is taking place, but most macroeconomic indicators remain positive.

Should Zeman's strategy be unsuccessful, he will soon be again challenged by those CSSD leaders and members, who have demanded that the CSSD become a constructive opposition force, trying to attract mainly centrist and center-left voters. Zeman is openly talking about forming a coalition with the centrist Christian and Democratic Union/the People's Party (KDU-CSL). But a radicalized and populist-prone CSSD is not likely to be seen as a suitable coalition partner by the KDU-CSL.

Although a party program was discussed at the congress, the CSSD did not manage to use its congress to convince the public that it has a clear vision of what needs to be done to improve the situation in the country. Most Czechs now know what strategy the CSSD under Zeman's leadership want to pursue vis-a-vis the ruling coalition. At the same time, it is not clear what exactly the CSSD would do to stop what it sees as a growing social crisis.

The coalition parties, too, do not seem to have clear ideas at the moment about what needs to be done. But their government--despite all of its problems--still projects a degree of competence. The best recipe for the coalition parties to fend off Zeman's offensive is, of course, to come up with clear ideas on how to deal with economic and social problems. On the other hand, they may be able to withstand the offensive by simply refusing to be drawn into major political battles fought over minor issues, as the radicalized CSSD does not seem to represent a real alternative.

Many voters punished the coalition parties in the last June elections for what they saw as the coalition's growing arrogance. Opinion polls have indicated that many voters are tired of constant political conflicts into which the coalition parties let themselves be drawn by Zeman after the elections. Staying away from such conflicts, speaking openly about problems, and projecting decency may be the best answer to Zeman's attempts to destabilize the government (and society) with the help of confrontational policies relying partly on voters of the extremist parties.

Reuters - 24. 3. 1997