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Is ODS trying to form a majority government?

Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Vaclav Klaus recently said that his party would consider a coalition with the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Union of Freedom (US). Klaus's words immediately fueled speculations that the so-called opposition agreement between the ODS and the governing Social Democrats (CSSD) is about to be canceled.

A careful analysis, however, suggests that much of what Klaus said about forming a coalition with the smaller right-of-center parties is only political posturing. It appears to be part of Klaus's recent efforts to create a different image for himself--that of a politician, who is not closed to cooperating with different partners. It is, however, not clear whether Klaus's conciliatory statements and attempts to call meetings with various political leaders have been prompted by sincere concerns about the Czech Republic's worsening situation or whether they are part of a strategy to create the image of an elder statesman who could eventually become the country's next president.

The coalition of the ODS, KDU-CSL, and the US would have only 102 seats in the 200-member lower chamber of the parliament. In making his offer to talk about creating such a coalition, Klaus warned that the coalition would be inherently unstable unless all partners agreed to work as a team. However, the three parties have very different ideas as to how such cooperation should be defined.

Given their previous experiences with working with and under Klaus, both KDU-CSL and US leaders would push for a clearly defined set of rules that would guide the coalition's work. They would demand that the autonomy of the two parties be protected and they not be reduced to mere rubber-stamping of ODS decisions. In the post-election negotiations in June and July 1998, the ODS, however, refused in advance any such demands from smaller parties. It is not likely that it has changed its views.

Another problem is that the ODS is talking about forming a right-of-center coalition but, at the same time, adheres to the opposition agreement under which the party received important political posts. The main purpose of the agreement was to reduce the influence of small parties. The two smaller right-of- center parties can, therefore, feel extorted. ODS leaders are basically saying that unless the two small parties form a coalition on the ODS's terms, the ODS will continue adhering to the terms of the opposition agreement.

It is also not clear to what extent the two small parties are ready to accept the ODS's assertions that a new coalition should be formed because the CSSD government is ruining the country. Accepting this line of argument would mean to ignore the fact that the CSSD government "inherited" the current crisis from the ODS-led governments. It is not dealing with the crisis effectively not because it is bad (it is, in fact, not worse than the Klaus governments) but because it is weak. Its minority status is possible only owing to the opposition agreement. The ODS must have known already in July, when it signed the opposition agreement, that it is helping to create a very weak government. The ODS assisted with the creation of such a government but since then has not offered the government any help in pushing important reforms through the parliament.

The KDU-CSL's and the US's participation in the government led by the ODS would amount to indirectly saying that the real causes of the current crisis did not originate in some faulty policies of the Klaus governments. Yet, Klaus's style of leadership and his unwillingness to reflect truthfully his own mistakes were among the causes that in Deceber 1997 prompted the KDU-CSL to leave the Klaus government and some current US leaders to leave the ODS.

Forming a right-of-center coalition is, therefore, conceivable only if the ODS, and Klaus personally, were able to admit past mistakes and were willing to learn from past mistakes. Klaus, however, does not seem to be prepared to do so. He has been consistently arguing that the stalling of reforms was caused by the Central Bank's restrictive policies and that the crisis has been acerbated by the CSSD government's bad performance.

The KDU-CSL, in particular, will find it difficult to search for consensus with the ODS. It is committed to some policies that Klaus describes as socialist. In fact, the program of the KDU-CSL is many respects closer to that of the CSSD than to that of the ODS. Areas in which the KDU-CSL and the ODS diverge significantly is European integration and the treatment of Czech exiles. While the ODS has increasingly propounded Euro-sceptic views and has been hostile to Czech =E9migr=E9s' various demands, the KDU-CSL has b= een very pro-European and friendly to Czech =E9migr=E9s.

It is likely that Klaus made his offer to do away with the CSSD government and form a right-of-center coalition knowing that any such coalition is very unlikely. His initiative may indeed win him and his party some points in popularity ratings. It, however, does not represent serious attempt to deal with the country's accumulated problems.

Reuters - 11. 2. 1999