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Critical voices in the ODS and the CSSD get stronger

The overwhelming victory of independent candidate Vaclav Fisher over party candidates in a recent Senate race in Central Prague has triggered a conflict within the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), with which the CSSD cooperates under the so-called opposition agreement. Fischer’s victory is seen by some influential members of both parties as a rejection by voters of the opposition agreement—a political arrangement under which the ODS allowed the CSSD to form a minority government last year in exchange for receiving top posts in the parliament.

Since Fischer’s victory, both parties have been searching for answers to their stunning defeat. CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman has attempted to explain the failure of the CSSD’s candidate Karel Srp as a tactical mistake. Zeman argued, for example, that the CSSD has underestimated the fact Srp had under the communist regime been registered as a secret police collaborator. Srp’s past, however, was clearly not the main problem. Stanislav Gross, the chairman of the CSSD’s parliamentary caucus, has been closer to the truth when he has publicly argued that Srp’s defeat is a reflection of a lack of competence of the Zeman government. CSSD Deputy Chairman Petra Buzkova has also indicated that the defeat of the CSSD’s candidate has other reasons than just Srp’s past.

It is clear that young politicians, such Buzkova and Gross must feel threatened by the sharp drop in popularity the CSSD has experienced since the last year’s general elections. While in the elections 32 percent of Czechs voted for the CSSD, opinion polls currently indicate that only some 15 percent of voters support the party. Government scandals and a lack of competence of the government are certainly responsible for such a sharp fall in popularity. However, Fischer’s victory shows that the opposition agreement is also a factor. After all, criticism of the agreement was Fischer’s main electoral message.

The CSSD is in a very difficult position vis-a-vis the opposition agreement. Zeman maintains that the party’s popularity will increase when the country’s economic performance starts to improve at the end of this year. Should the opposition agreement collapse and his party should consequently leave the government, the CSSD would not get a chance to recover in the eyes of the electorate. Moreover, some CSSD leaders, such as Gross are doubtful that Zeman’s assertions that the country’s is on its way out of economic crisis are correct. Fischer’s victory thus may mark the beginning of a power struggle in the CSSD.

The ODS is in a similar situation. ODS leaders in Prague have criticized the style of the ODS’s electoral campaign, in particular the text of an appeal to voters signed by Vaclav Klaus. In the appeal, Klaus alleged Fischer was trying to buy his way into the Senate and was supported by the communists. For a third time since the last’s year’s elections, Klaus called for a mobilization of right-of-center voters against “leftists.” Klaus’s appeal backfired, apparently helping Fischer to win even more votes.

ODS Deputy Chairman Miroslav Macek has called for a change in the ODS’s policies and questioned the opposition agreement. He has said that the ODS should cancel the agreement, unless the CSSD agreed to a new electoral law. He also warned against supporting the deficit budget that the Zeman government will submit to the parliament in the fall.

A few months before its congress, the ODS, which has been for two years totally dominated by Klaus, seems to be badly shaken. Prague politicians, such as Mayor Jan Kasl have criticized Klaus; other municipal politicians may follow. Although at this point, it seems unlikely that Klaus could be replaced as the ODS chairman, he will have to fight for his position for the first time in two years. He will also have to fight for the opposition agreement, as an increasing number of ODS leaders are critical of it. In fact, both Zeman and Klaus have tied themselves so closely to the opposition agreement that the agreement’s defeat in their respective parties could also turn into their own political defeats.

Reuters - 8. 9. 1999