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Will the Czech Republic hold early elections?

The recent announcement of Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Chairman Milos Zeman that his party will attempt to trigger early elections next year has not made the political situation in the Czech Republic less confusing than what it has been now for more than a year. Since the June 1996 elections, the CSSD has kept the government under constant pressure. Zeman has repeatedly called the government "incompetent." During a recent budget debate in parliament, he even accused the government of protecting thieves and, thus, of being corrupt.

Zeman has never concealed that he would like to start the process leading to early elections after the presidential election in January 1998, so that early elections could be held in November 1998, simultaneously with he local government elections. But only now is the intention of the CSSD to trigger early elections official. The party's explanation for holding the general and municipal elections at the same time is that such timing would save money. The real reason is that the CSSD-- that does not have an effective network of local organizations--hopes to use the momentum generated by the general elections to score significant gains on the municipal level.

The CSSD could not have procrastinated much longer with officially announcing it wants early elections. According to opinion polls, the party has been the most popular political grouping in the country for almost a year now. As a result, some CSSD members, and leaders, have started getting impatient. They feel that the CSSD should stop merely criticize the government's performance and, instead, offer an alternative. More important, a degree of unclarity as to what the CSSD's objections really were, had demoralizing effects on some CSSD members and voters. In announcing the effort to hold early elections next fall, Zeman has given his party a clear purpose.

But can the party indeed trigger early elections? At this point, the CSSD-led opposition is two seats short f a majority in the parliament. Two deputies--Marie Neoveska and Jozef Wagner--were expelled from the CSSD at the beginning of this year, and the CSSD can no longer rely on their support. While Neoveska has in general continued voting in line with the CSSD caucus, Wagner has in the most important cases voted with the coalition. In June, Wagner's vote saved the government during a vote of confidence.

Letting the government fall is not in Wagner's interest. The fact that Wagner holds a swing vote that can make the government either fall or live has made him one of the most important politicians in the country. He has not managed to form his own party that he could use as a power base for a political comeback in elarly elections. A resounding victory of the CSSD in the early elections--a development widely predicted by political analysts--would most likely send Wagner into political oblivion.

The CSSD has therefore decided to rely on "reasonable" coalition deputies in trying to trigger early elections. Zeman rightly argues that the ruling coalition is disjointed. Coalition parties spend more time on fighting each other than on governing. Moreover, conflicts have erupted withing coalition parties themselves. But whether the CSSD can persuade some coalition deputies to bring their own government down is not clear.

In fact, it is possible that Zeman's latest challenge could give the drifting coalition a new sense of unity and purpose.Most coalition deputies--knowing that their parties may have fewer deputies in a new parliament after the elections--will resist early elections. This is true also about deputies representing the coalition Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-CSL), which Zeman sees as a potential ally. The KDU-CSL is unhappy with the current government of Vaclav Klaus, but it is unclear whether it sees early elections as a solution. The CSSD would most likely emerge as by far the strongest party from early elections. Working with Zeman may be as difficult for KDU-CSL Chairman Josef Lux as is working with Klaus.

Triggering early elections is rather difficult under the Czech Constitution. Should the government collapse for any reason--for example, because of failing to pass a vote of confidence, which the KDU-CSL currenty demands--the president is given two more attempts to name a prime minister (who then presents a new cabinet). If those two attempts fail, the president names a prime minister on the suggestion of the chairman of the parliament's lower chamber. Only if even this attempt to form a government fails, the president has to dissolve the parliament and call new elections. Under a different scenario, the parliament could try to break a political deadlock, and call early elections, by passing a constitutional amendement. But this possibility is even more remore than the option listed in the constitution.

Clearly, the CSSD would need rather unambiguous cooperation from the KDU-CSL, should it be able to succeed in its bid to trigger early elections. Whether the level of frustration within the KDU-CSL leadership with the current coalition has reached such proportions is unclear. In fact, the KDU-CSL may want to use the CSSD's bid only to upset the current government and, subsequently, attempt to form a viable government with its current coalition partners--but without Klaus. On the other hand, given the internal situation in Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, it seems at this point that the ODS would be opposed to any efforts to replace Klaus as prime minister. Therefore, it is quite possible that once the KDU-CSL decides to support the CSSD's bid, it may indeed have to follow the CSSD all the way--to early elections next year.

Reuters - 4. 11. 1997