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Civic Democrats at a Crossroads

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus is at a crossroads for the first time in two years. Not since the end of 1997, when the government of Vaclav Klaus collapsed and the ODS split following revelations about the party's dubious financial deals, has the ODS experienced the kind of internal turmoil it is experiencing now.

Heated discussions within the party about its future started after the ODS's candidate was resoundingly defeated by an independent candidate, Vaclav Fischer, in the Senate elections in Prague. Some municipal politicians in Prague subsequently criticized the party leadership, including Klaus, for running a bad election campaign.

ODS vice-chairmen Miroslav Macek went even further when he attacked the so- called opposition agreement, under which the ODS made it possible for the Social Democrats (CSSD) to form a minority government last year in exchange for receiving the highest posts in the parliament. The two parties also agreed to change the constitution and the electoral law to their benefit.

A party congress, planned for December, is likely to be quite turbulent. Prague Mayor Jan Kasl has openly challenged both Klaus and Macek, each of them for different reasons. Kasl also attacked former Prague mayor Jan Koukal, who is still chairman of the ODS's Prague organization. Some other influential municipal politicians support Kasl.

The future of the ODS depends also on the fate of the planned electoral law and constitutional changes. While only a few weeks ago it seemed certain that a set of constitutional amendments--whose main objective is to reduce the powers of the president and the independence of the Central Bank-will sail through Parliament without any problems, it appears now that at least some of those changes may not be approved, as some Senators have indicated they will not vote for the changes.

Electoral law changes are also in jeopardy. The CSSD has realized it would commit a political suicide, should it agree to changes that strongly benefit the largest parties. A year ago, when electoral law changes were first envisaged, the CSSD was the most popular party in the country, with 32 percent of Czechs voting for it in the general elections. Currently, the party has the support of only some 15 percent of voters. ODS leaders announced at their meeting on 28 September that the party will insist that the CSSD accept the electoral law changes by 15 October. What will happen if the CSSD does not do so is not clear. Macek, for example, has insisted that he would cancel his signature under the opposition agreement. Other ODS leaders may follow, which would leave Klaus in a precarious position.

In the next few weeks the ODS may score a big victory or suffer a major defeat. Should the CSSD cave in and accept the new electoral law, the ODS could trigger early elections and score a big victory. Under the proposed law, a party winning a mere 30 percent in popular support could win a majority of seats in the parliament's lower chamber. Should the constitutional amendments be approved, the ODS could become not only the strongest Czech party but would also significantly reduce the power of the president, whom it views as its political rival.

Should the electoral law and constitutional changes not be approved, the party, and Klaus in particular, stand much to lose. The opposition agreement would be under great pressure. The collapse of the CSSD government could pave the way toward creating a majority coalition, in which the ODS may not necessarily be represented. At any rate, the collapse of the agreement would probably result in an attack on Klaus and his associates. Whether the ODS can survive as a powerful party without Klaus is uncertain.

Reuters - 28. 9. 1999