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The CSSD Congress brings no surprises

The congress of the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD), held 9-11 April, did not bring any major surprises. Both of the two competing wings of the party successfully defended their posts in the party presidium. In fact,

the biggest surprise at the congress was a lack of any discussion of the performance of the CSSD government at a time when the Czech Republic experiences deep economic recession and the government's popularity is declining.

The fact that neither the wing headed by CSSD parliamentary caucus leader Stanislav Gross nor the wing headed by CSSD Chairman gained the upper hand in the party is good news for Gross and his followers. Zeman, running for the post of party chairman without a contender, was reelected easily. However, he has announced repeatedly that he is going to step down in two years, proposing first deputy chairman Vladimir Spidla as his successor. Had Zeman's followers decisively won at the congress, Spidla'a accession to the highest party post in two years would most likely be just a formality.

However, the congress reelected Zeman's most vocal opponent, Petra Buzkova, as CSSD deputy chairwoman. It also elected Karel Kobes to the post of deputy chairman responsible for party finances, despite the fact the Zeman wing nominated, in two separate rounds of voting, two different candidates against him. Kobes was nominated by the powerful Central Bohemian organization that is the power base of Gross.

Since Zeman failed to eradicate supporters of Gross from the CSSD leadership, the next congress of the CSSD is likely to become a real battleground between the leftists represented by Spidla and the moderates represented by Gross. Zeman will face intense pressure from his followers to change his mind and stay on as chairman after 2001.

At the congress, Zeman was quite ambivalent about his attitudes toward the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus. He delivered some scathing criticism of the ODS's performance in the Czech government from 1992 to 1997. He also refused Klaus's criticism of the performance of the CSSD government since it was formed in July 1998. At the same time, however, Zeman proposed the deepening of the so-called opposition agreement that the ODS and the CSSD signed in July 1998. Under this agreement, the CSSD was able to form a minority government with ODS support, in exchange for letting the ODS take over top posts in the parliament.

In light of mounting problems that the weak minority government of the CSSD has faced, Zeman's plea for more cooperation from the ODS sounded logical--even though it would mean offering the ODS other important posts. In fact, Zeman's call for expanding the opposition agreement is an opportunist gesture. He knows that the deepening crisis in the country needs more than expanding an agreement that has so far produced a decision-making paralysis. Even if the ODS had agreed to take up Zeman's offer, the CSSD could at best hope that the ODS will support in the parliament some specific bills proposed by the CSSD.

A mere expansion of the opposition agreement would not suffice, hwever, at a time when the country needs to restart the stalled engine of reforms and to cope successfully with various requirements of the European Union . Petra Buzkova has said that much in various media performances, suggesting that the CSSD should attempt to lure the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union (US) into forming a majority government. Her calls to cancel the opposition agreement were echoed at the congress by some delegates. Zeman, however, called such pleas "a stupidity".

The fact the CSSD is a party with two distinct faces also became apparent when about half of the congress delegates signed a letter to the Yugoslav Ambassador to the Czech Republic, in which they rejected NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia. The congress in the end distanced itself from the letter, but it is clear that anti-NATO sentiments are strong in the party. The advocates of anti-NATO views are mainly those CSSD members who are in their views much closer the Communist Party than, for example, the centrist KDU-CSL.

With such a strong contingent of people whose views are radically leftist, the CSSD will find it difficult to move closer to the political center without a major struggle within the party. The congress underlined the fact that the CSSD is a party that, unlike its Western counterparts, is not yet able to embrace centrist policies that appeal to large segments of the middle class. The party presented little or no ideas for the future. Rather, an overwhelming majority of speakers at the congress focused on internal party problems and/or criticizing the CSSD's opponents. A failure to deliver a positive message may come to haunt the party.

Reuters - 14. 4. 1999