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The Congress of Freedom Union brings no surprises

The congress of the Union of Freedom (US), held in Nymburk on 20-21 February, did not significantly change the course the party had followed since its inception at the beginning of 1998. Jan Ruml, who in the past repeatedly suggested that he may leave politics, was reelected the party chairman. The confirmation of Ruml in the top party post means that the US will continue to be associated in the minds of voters with a politician who is seen as a principled man but, at the same time, a man whom few voters se as an able manager and whom they can hardly picture as the country's prime minister.

Ruml also carries the stigma of a politician who was in the past closely associated with former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Ruml and other politicians left the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), headed by Klaus, last fall, but neither Ruml nor other former ODS politicians who are now US members have managed to explain why they actually had to leave the ODS.

They have often talked about financial machinations within the ODS but have never been able to supply enough evidence to support their charges. Some observers have argued that Ruml and other politicians in fact left the ODS mainly because of Klaus, who had allowed little discussion within the party. As the economic situation of the Czech Republic kept deteriorating throughout 1997, Klaus's unwillingness to reflect critically on his own mistakes became a real obstacle to change.

However, Ruml and other former ODS members have never been able to say openly even that much. Their criticism of Klaus has been rather weak. Many voters are confused by the US's attitudes toward the ODS and Klaus, in particular. After it was created the US argued that the ODS needs to critically evaluate its own performance but, at the same time, Ruml and other US politicians kept hinting they could imagine a coalition with the ODS after the elections in June 1998.

After the elections, US politicians said that they could form a coalition with the ODS only if the party were able to deal critically with its past. In their opinion, Klaus and his followers were distorting history by claiming that Ruml and other former ODS politicians were engaged in a conspiracy against Klaus in November 1997 when the ODS started falling apart. Some US politician also suggested that a coalition with the ODS would be possible if the ODS decided to nominate someone else than Klaus as the country's prime minister.

While making demands that the ODS could not possibly accept, the US at the same time refused a generous offer from Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Chairman Milos Zeman to form a coalition with the CSSD. Observers have suggested that inexperienced US politicians overplayed their hand when they expected to force a second round of negotiations on the composition of a new government, during which they would be in a better bargaining.

Instead, Zeman and Klaus decided to sign a so-called opposition agreement, under which a minority CSSD government was made possible with the ODS's help. The US has repeatedly criticized the agreement, but the realization of US leaders they had made a tactical mistake came too late. The marginalization of the party, caused by the opposition agreement, gradually prompted some US leaders to adopt a more realistic approach to the CSSD. In late 1998 some of them suggested that cooperating with the CSSD was not out of question.

The US congress was expected to become a battleground between those who are strongly opposed to working with the CSSD and those who are not averse to the idea. At the congress, neither of the party's two wings gained the upper hand. Ruml is a representative of those members who are staunchly opposed to working with the CSSD. Karel Kuehnl, who was elected the first deputy chairman, as well as deputy chairmen Vadimir Mlynar and Jiri Lobkowitz are more pragmatic. Another deputy chairman elected at the congress, Petr Mares, is in favor of cooperating with right-of- center forces.

Vaclav Klaus played an excellent tactical game before the US congress, when he had suggested that the ODS is open to talks on forming a right-of-center coalition with the US and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL). He repeated his offer at the congress, making it more difficult for the advocates of cooperation with the CSSD to win. The fact that Klaus became the real star of the US congress suggests that the US is still an immature political group whose relationship with the ODS and Klaus is rather confused.

The congress left the US where it had been before the congress. It is a party that says it wants to offer voters its own alternatives to the policies of both the ODS and the CSSD. In reality, it has not been able to sell to the public its program. It is a party without a real identity, whose stances are often difficult to understand. Milos Zeman may be right when he ironically describes the US as the ODS Two. As such, the US has not been able to convince voters that the ODS One is a bad choice. In fact, the possibility that in the future the US could fold into the ODS is not implausible.

Reuters - 24. 2. 1999