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The first anniversary of the opposition agreement

When a year ago leaders of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) signed the so-called opposition agreement, they described it as a “stabilization pact.” Today it is clear that the agreement has contributed to the current state of political and economic paralysis in the country.

Under the agreement, the CSSD was able to form a minority government with ODS support, while the ODS received important state posts, such as chairmanships of both chambers of Parliament. The ODS agreed not to initiate a vote of no-confidence in the government or support a vote of no-confidence initiated by other parties. The two parties agreed to prepare within one year of the agreement’s signing common constitutional amendments and a new electoral law.

The agreement has indeed stabilized the political situation in the country, as it has prevented opposition parties from recalling the government. But it has, at the same time, created a degree of political schizophrenia. At the beginning of July the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution stating in effect that the government’s activities harm the country. The ODS supported the resolution but refused to support recalling the government.

According to opinion polls, only about one third of Czechs still support the opposition agreement--a drop of some twenty percent since the time the agreement was signed. Ordinary citizens are not only confused by the blurring of lines between the opposition and the government but they also see that the minority government does not have enough support to push through the parliament important bills. Although the CSSD government inherited many problems from the previous right-of-center governments, its own weakness has contributed to new problems.

After the CSSD government took over, it promised a “legislative storm”, whose main objective was to pass dozens of laws demanded from the Czech Republic by the European Union. The legislative storm has not taken place, and the Czech Republic is in danger of definitely losing the confidence of the EU. A report by the EU on the country’s performance in adjusting to EU standards, that is to be released in October, is expected to be harsh.

Both CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman and ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus praised the agreement on its first anniversary. They both argue that the agreement cannot be canceled, because no alternatives to the current political arrangement exist. In fact, alternatives, including several possible majority coalitions, existed already when the agreement was signed. They continue to exist. The main reason for the existence of the agreement is the fact that Czech political leaders are unable to communicate. They keep putting their own personal and party interests above the interests of the country.

In fact, Zeman and Klaus would like jointly to create a two-party system in which they will not have to negotiate with smaller political parties. Constitutional and electoral law changes that are mentioned in the agreement are partly designed to create a two-party system. Klaus and Zeman have announced that their two parties have completed work on drafting constitutional amendments. The two parties still differ over a new electoral law but in the end they are likely to find a compromise. The main problems of the Czech political system will, however, not disappear with such artificially-engineered changes. The real problem is not an allegedly imperfect electoral law but, rather, the selfishness and postcommunist mentality of leading politicians.

The Czech Republic is at a crossroads, as constitutional and electoral law changes proposed by the ODS and the CSSD could reduce political pluralism. At the same time, some ODS deputies support a new press law, proposed by the CSSD government, that could be used to restrict journalistic freedoms. In defending the bill in Parliament, Zeman said that there are two types of political forces in the country: legitimately elected politicians and people, such as prominent publicists, who did not submit themselves to an electoral test but would like to do politics. Restrictive changes planned by the CSSD and the ODS could thus ultimately be aimed not only at small parties but at anyone who is not a supporter of the two largest parties and tries to influence political developments in the country.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 12. 7. 1999