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Is CSSD trying to commit political suicide?

Upon introducing his government last year, Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Chairman Milos Zeman said the government was on a suicide mission. He was pointing to a bad economic situation in which the CSSD was taking over governing. It was clear that accepting responsibility for running the country in the midst of an economic crisis could possibly result in a political suicide.

The popularity of the CSSD government has indeed dropped from 44 percent when it was formed to the current 27 percent. The popularity of the CSSD has dropped from 32 percent a year ago to some 18 percent. Should this trend to continue, the CSSD is indeed on the way to committing a political suicide.

However, reasons for the declining popularity of the CSSD and its government are not only those that Zeman anticipated a year ago. Most Czechs understand that the CSSD indeed took over in a very difficult situation and that improving the economy may take several years. Zeman and other CSD leaders have contributed to the party’s sagging fortunes in a number of other ways.

First, Zeman has been adopted a highly confrontational line vis-a-vis the media. Rather than patiently explaining his policies, he has repeatedly attacked journalists, using harsh, sometimes even vulgar expressions. Most journalists are now opposed to Zeman, and it will be very difficult to win them over.

The prime minister also created high expectations, which he has not been able to meet. For example, Zeman for months pushed aside criticisms of some members of his cabinet with a promise of evaluating the performance of his cabinet on its first anniversary and subsequently parting with those ministers who did not perform well. He indeed did so, identifying four ministers who, in his view, did not meet his expectations. But in the end, the prime minister replaced only one of those four ministers--Finance Minister Ivo Svoboda. He also failed to identify as bad ministers Industry Minister Miroslav Gregr and health Minister Ivan David, both of whom had been frequently criticized by the opposition and the media.

Another area in which the CSSD is losing a battle for voters is its relationship with the Communists. Prior to the last year’s elections, Zeman used populist promises to lure communist voters. He succeeded to some degree. However, at the same time he seems to have miscalculated. It should have been clear to him already then that if the CSSD should indeed take over governing, it will have to pursue policies that will alienate radical leftist voters. Those CSSD politicians who at the time argued that the CSSD should try to attract centrist voters seem to be vindicated by the latest developments. The party is, however, so discredited now that it may be too late to turn to centrist voters.

A political suicide of the CSSD could become real if the CSSD agrees to changes to the electoral law that are currently being discussed by leaders of the CSSD and the Civic Democrats. Those changes would significantly strengthen big political parties and weaken small ones. Only several months ago, the CSSD was the second biggest party. According to some opinion polls it has been now surpassed by the Communists. A new electoral system would also force small right-of-center parties to form a coalition. Such a coalition could easily beat the CSSD in the next elections, should the political fortunes of the CSSD continue to decline. The CSSD could thus virtually disappear from the Czech political map.

Reuters - 27. 7. 1999