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Whither the Social Democrats?

The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) may soon be threatened with serious internal tension. Various opinion polls indicate that only about 16 percent of Czechs would cast their votes in favor of the CSSD if elections were held now. In the parliamentary elections last year, the CSSD gained more than 32 percent of the popular vote.

CSSD Chairman Milos Zeman announced some time ago that he will leave politics in two years. Zeman’s departure from the top party post would cause internal problems even if the CSSD were in a good shape. Should even more voters turn away from the CSSD, Zeman’s departure may cause a real political earthquake within the decimated party.

Finding a successor to Zeman who could match his leadership qualities would be difficult under any circumstances. Zeman currently integrates the party in that he is serving as the most important connecting link between the leftists and the centrists in the CSSD. Although he has sided more with the left wing, Zeman has at the same time been careful not to completely alienate the centrist followers of Stanislav Gross, chairman of the CSSD’s parliamentary caucus.

At the same time, the centrists have known that their chances of gaining the control of the party are slim as long as they have to deal with a formidable opponent, such as Zeman. When Zeman steps down, the two wings of the party will find it very difficult to find a leader on which they could both agree. A victory of an important representative of the centrists could easily prompt leftists to leave the party, and vice versa.

The likelihood of such a development will be much greater if the party is weak and in disarray. Paradoxically, it is Zeman, under whose leadership the CSSD became the strongest Czech party, who at this point is partly responsible for weakening his party’s position, as he stubbornly continues to adhere to the so-called opposition agreement. Under the agreement the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus made possible a minority government of the CSSD but at the same time said it would remain in opposition to CSSD policies. Zeman agreed to take over a country plagued by a deepening crisis, despite the fact he did not have enough support in the parliament to be able to carry out necessary reform measures.

The economic situation of the Czech Republic will continue to worsen for some time. In the fall, the European Union is likely to issue yet another scathing report on the performance of the Czech Republic in meeting various EU requirements. One year after the CSSD agreed to form a one-party government, Czech voters are beginning to forget that many of the current problems were in fact caused by the governments of Vaclav Klaus. Moreover, the CSSD government has not been able to convince voters that it is a competent body. Rather than replacing some ministers, Zeman has stubbornly insisted that his government performs quite well.

Should there be no sudden turnaround in economic developments, the popularity of the CSSD will continue to decline. In fact, it may be just the matter of time before the ascendant Communist Party will become more popular with voters than the CSSD. Such a development would, of course, cause a degree of panic in the CSSD’s ranks.

Younger CSSD leaders, from both wings, must already be asking themselves whether the current developments are not threatening their political futures. It is almost certain that voices of dissent in the CSSD will emerge soon if the CSSD government is not able to come up with some successes. Doing so will, however, be very difficult unless Zeman can form a majority coalition government that could push through the parliament major reforms.

The longer Zeman adheres to the opposition agreement the smaller will be his chances of forming a majority government. As the next parliamentary elections draw closer, potential coalition partners will be increasingly unwilling to accept responsibility for the bad situation in the country. Should they do so, they will interpret it as an act of salvaging the country from the incompetent CSSD government.

Giving up governing would represent a stunning defeat for Zeman. Therefore, unless he can quickly form a majority coalition government, he will prefer to maintain the current minority government. That can, however, trigger a real crisis in his own party as worried prospective future leaders may not want to be associated with the government’s bad performance. Last year’s electoral victory of the CSSD could thus paradoxically turn into Zeman’s greatest political defeat.

Reuters, Prague Business Journal - 16. 6. 1999