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Does the Czech Republic need meeting of all political parties

President Vaclav Havel in January proposed a meeting of all democratic parliamentary parties, whose main purpose is to seek consensus over important issues. Havel's proposal followed his New Year's speech, in which he warned against new walls that--a decade after the collapse of the walls that once separated communist countries from the West--are in the Czech Republic growing between political parties, various social strata, and different ethnic groups.

In calling for such a meeting, Havel said that the Czech Republic is not experiencing a new revolution. It is simply experiencing a degree of stagnation caused by unnecessary conflicts among major political parties. In a letter sent to chairmen of all parliamentary parties, with the exception of the Communists, the president urged the chairmen not to use the term "round-table" in referring to the meeting, because the term is associated with the heady days at the end of 1989.

Havel decided not to invite the Communist Party because the party's views on most issues differ from those of the mainstream parties. On the other hand, he invited the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) that is is represented only in the Senate. The invited parties are expected to respond within several days.

Some analysts have argued that a meeting of all political parties is a useless exercise. In their opinion, the mere fact that the Czech Republic is currently governed by a minority government of the Social Democrats (CSSD), that can exist only owing to the tentative support of Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), shows that political parties are unable to seek broader consensus. Smaller parties missed their chance to participate in a majority government after the June 1998 elections, when they were offered posts in the government by the CSSD. Even since, the Czech political scene has resembled a battleground where it is not always clear why parties agree or disagree over certain issues.

The president has emphasized he will not try to persuade the political parties they should abandon their ideologies and seek consensus in areas in which their views significantly differ. However, there are certain areas that are basically non- ideological. The European Union issued a report on the Czech Republic last fall in which it, for example, criticized the Czech Republic's inefficient judiciary, unfinished reforms of the state administration system, and state-owned banks.

The democratic parliamentary parties could, therefore, at least agree that they will try to seriously address the EU's concerns. Regardless of whether the government remains a minority one or will be reconstructed to become a majority one, political parties across the political spectrum could support measures that would help the country to meet EU requirements. ODA Chairman Daniel Kroupa said after a meeting with the president in late January that the parties invited by the president could try to define the Czech Republic's national interests and agree to cooperate in pursuing such interests.

The president asked the invited parties to supply themes they think should be discussed at the meeting. Although agreeing on common themes seems to be easy in light of the EU's criticism, one should not underestimate Czech politicians' ability to disagree on virtually anything. It is almost certain that despite the looming economic crisis and the EU criticism, some political leaders will perceive talking with other political leaders as unnecessary.

The first sign of how difficult it may be to bring Czech political leaders to the same table had surfaced even before Havel sent his invitation letter to the chairmen of the parliamentary parties. Although he had consulted his idea for holding a meeting of all democratic parliamentary parties with their chairmen (whom he met individually between 18 and 27 January) the ODS issued a statement on 27 January, in which it argued that Vaclav Klaus had not met the president in his capacity of the ODS Chairman but only in his capacity of the chairman of the parliament's lower chamber. Although Klaus in general terms agreed with the idea of holding a meeting of all democratic parliamentary parties during his meeting with the president, he allegedly did not speak as the ODS Chairman.

In light of such obstructions, it is quite possible that the meeting proposed by Havel will not materialize. The president has said that he would call the meeting not only if all invited parties accept his invitation but if they also in advance agree they are willing to seek consensus on some basic issues. At this point it is not certain that Czech political leaders will be willing to do so.

Reuters - 4. 2. 1999