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Upcoming party congresses

The upcoming party congresses of the Social Democrats (CSSD), the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Union of Freedom (US) are likely to influence in a number of ways the political situation in the Czech Republic. Signs of struggle for power are visible in all three parties.

The US, which will hold its congress at the end of February, is currently threatened by internal strife more than any other major Czech political party. In July 1998, the party refused a generous offer to participate in a coalition government headed by the CSSD. However, the wing of ideological fundamentalists, who prevailed within the party during post-election negotiations, is now being increasingly challenged by pragmatists who are not opposed to working together with the CSSD.

Some analysts argue that the party could even split in the aftermath of the congress. In fact, the party is probably more coherent than differing statements by party officials suggest. It is certain that a clear victory by either wing will not be welcome by the other wing. On the other hand, party leaders have shown they are able to work together even if they do not always send the same signals. Current US Chairman Jan Ruml, who leads the fundamentalists, is likely to be reelected. At the same time, representatives of the moderate wing, such as Karel Kuehnl and Michal Lobkowitz, will probably be elected to the posts of the party's vice-chairmen.

Should the party split, it would have important ramifications for Czech politics in general. Some moderates would probably offer their support to the efforts of the CSSD and KDU-CSL to form a coalition. The possibility that some US deputies would defect to the KDU-CSL also cannot be excluded.

The CSSD's congress, scheduled to take place in March, may become a battleground between the followers of current CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman and the followers of CSSD parliamentary caucus leader Stanislav Gross. The latter has in recent weeks several times challenged Zeman over internal party issues. Most recently, Gross expressed surprise over Zeman's suggestion that the CSSD could build a more stable support for its one-party government by expanding the terms of the so-called opposition agreement with the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus.

Gross and some other CSSD officials have never been enthusiastic supporters of the opposition agreement. They have also criticized the work of the Zeman-led government. Opinion polls suggest that an increasing number of Czechs are opposed to the opposition agreement. They see the agreement as a pact that might have been necessary for the sake of the country's stability after the elections, but is currently paralyzing the government's efforts to solve the most pressing problems of the country.

Should Gross or any other leader who is seen as a member of the Gross camp replace Zeman at the helm of the party, the CSSD's would ideologically move to the political center. It would strive more for the image of modern social democratic party in the West European mold. As such, it would become more acceptable for right-of-center parties (and for the US, in particular) as a potential coalition partner.

Zeman seems to be aware of the growing challenge to him within the party. His recent announcement that he is planning to retire from active politics in four years may be part of his to convince congress delegates that he is not going to stand in the way of a generational change in the party in the medium-term.

The KDU-CSL's congress in May will decide whether the party will be headed by Jan Kasal, a more traditional leader rooted in the Catholic Moravia, or by Cyril Svoboda, a your pragmatist, whose power base is mainly in Prague. Svoboda's election would significantly change the image of the party. Under his leadership, the KDU-CSL would become less associated with the Catholic Church and would be seen more as a modern Christian democratic party that exist in some European countries.

However, Kasal has better chances to win. His power base is stronger than that of Svoboda. Moreover, he seems to enjoy the support of Josef Lux, the former chairman of the KDU-CSL, who recently departed from his post owing to a serious illness and who is still tremendously respected by party members. Regardless of who will win the succession struggle, it is clear that the KDU-CSL will continue in its efforts to cooperate more closely with the CSSD. Seen from that point of view, it is clear that the results of the CSSD and the US congresses will be much more important for future political developments in the country than the congress of the KDU-CSL.

Reuters - 28. 1. 1999