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Whither the Civic democratic party?

The Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus is currently the most popular political party in the Czech Republic. Although opinion polls show that the party’s popularity has dropped by about five percent since the last years elections, the ODS consistently rates as the most popular party ever since the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) began its downward slide in opinion polls last fall.

The ODS has suffered less than the CSSD from the effects of the so-called opposition agreement, under which the ODS allowed the CSSD to form a minority government in exchange for receiving top parliamentary posts. At the time of its signing, the opposition agreement appeared to a political masterstroke of Vaclav Klaus; he was enabling the CSSD to take over governing in a very difficult situation in a power sharing arrangement that made it possible for the ODS to behave as an opposition party. The popularity of the CSSD was bound to plummet, as a weak minority government could not really effectively address all problems inherited from the previous governments.

However, there are signs that being associated with the opposition agreement may be politically costly for Klaus’s party. Only about 35 percent of Czechs now approve of the opposition agreement. The Czech political landscape was swept by a wave of panic after recent opinion polls showed that the unreformed Communist Party has surpassed the CSSD in opinion polls, becoming the second most popular party. The ODS has rejected allegations that the rise of the Communists has been caused by the political paralysis produced by the opposition agreement. However, should the popularity of the Communist Party continue to rise, the ODS’s arguments may become increasingly tenuous.

The ODS has traveled a long way since it was founded in 1991. At that time, Klaus’s party was a pro-action, liberal political grouping, associated with bold economic reforms. However, three years later, the ODS was responsible for slowing down the reform process. Historians may be able to answer one day whether this change in ODS attitudes was a result a political caution ahead of the1996 elections or whether the party became too closely intertwined with various lobbies that preferred a non-transparent economic and legal environment.

The ODS won the elections in 1996 but was not able to form a majority government. A minority government led by Klaus collapsed amidst a deepening economic crisis in December 1997. The ODS itself split following allegations of dubious handling of party finances. Subsequently, a group of leading ODS politicians founded a new party, the Union of Freedom (US). Klaus was badly shaken by those developments but was eventually able to consolidate his power within the party. After plummeting to some 10 percent in popularity polls, the ODS managed to finish second in the elections in June 1998, polling some 28 percent of the popular vote.

However, the party has paid a heavy price for the 1997 developments. It became virtually a one-man group. Should Klaus leave, the ODS would be in a great danger of losing a large number of its followers. Although many people still support Klaus, it is not clear what his real program is. The ODS has almost entirely abandoned the liberal rhetoric Klaus initially used. The party has moved more toward conservatism, becoming rather nationalistic and Euro-skeptic—reflecting increasingly Klaus’s own views.

It is not clear who potential ODS voters really are. Populist, conservative and nationalist slogans used by the current ODS quite obviously appeal to different voters than those who supported Klaus’s liberal ideology in the first half of the 1990s. It is also not clear what the ODS would really do, should return back to power. Although Klaus is still associated with reforms in the minds of many Czechs, it is doubtful that a post-1997 Klaus would really pursue reforms. His main objective seems to be holding on to power--be it with the help of the opposition agreement or some other arrangement. In this respect, the current Vaclav Klaus resembles more former Slovak premier Vladimir Meciar than himself nine years ago.

Reuters - 28. 7. 1999