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Nationalist Platform could be Klaus' Last Resort

The electoral defeat of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) is likely to trigger a severe identity and leadership crisis in the party. It is clear that ODS does not really know at this point which segment of voters it represents or, even worse, which it wants to represent.

Originally a liberal party, ODS has since 1998 gradually moved toward a mix of conservative, nationalist and populist ideas. Klaus himself has become increasingly hostile to the ideas of European integration. The gradual intensification of Klaus's anti-EU rhetoric has posed a serious problem for ODS, as its voters represent the most pro-EU segment of the Czech electorate. Knowing this, Klaus has tried to perform a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, he continually assured voters that there is no alternative to the Czech Republic's membership in the EU; on the other hand, he never neglected to rattle off a long list of the EU's real or alleged problems.

In the electoral campaign, Klaus also attempted to capture extreme right voters, putting emphasis on issues such as national interests and a fight against immigration. He also tried to utilize the issue of the so-called Benes decrees, under which post-war Czechoslovakia confiscated the assets of some three million Sudeten Germans after World War II and eventually expelled them form the country.

Klaus created an artificial scare, claiming that Germany and Austria are seeking extensive revisions of the post-war property and territorial arrangements. He demanded that the EU guarantee the inviolability of the Benes decrees and threatened to campaign against EU membership if the EU does not do so.

It was at this point that Klaus began to lose the elections. Many Czechs were scared by his arguments, but they did not necessarily seek protection under ODS's wings. Instead, as the electoral results show, most of these voters cast their votes for the Communists, who are a real strong-arm party with a long history of fighting the "Sudeten German threat." Moreover, by openly turning against the EU, Klaus scared away even more of his traditional voters. They had to decide whether they preferred Klaus to the European Union.

Klaus then sealed his electoral defeat trying to undermine the Social Democrats (CSSD) by mobilizing against socialism. After all, it was the ODS that kept the socialist government in power for four years with the help of a cynical power-sharing agreement called the opposition agreement. Klaus's appeals only reminded many voters that he had mobilized against the CSSD before the elections in 1998, only to ally himself with Milos Zeman after the election.

Following the electoral defeat, ODS faces serious problems. First, over the years it has become a one-man party. The party's entire election campaign revolved around Klaus. ODS's defeat is thus Klaus's defeat, but ODS does not have anyone to replace Klaus. Second, ODS has embraced some issues that are generally advocated by extremist parties, losing moderate, pro-EU voters in the process. To recapture those voters, the party would needs to move back toward the political center. That, however, will not be easy unless Mr. Klaus "reinvents" himself or is replaced by someone else.

The main dilemma of ODS is that it has no leader as charismatic as Klaus to help change the party's image, and staying with Klaus most likely means a further movement toward anti-EU attitudes, which will drive out even more traditional voters from the party. Moreover, removing Klaus would amount to removing also a group of leaders at the central level he "created". A revolt in the party would have to come from the regional level, and it is not clear they have enough clout to do that.

Klaus himself may follow three strategies now. First, he is likely to work hard to split the Coalition of the Freedom Union (US) and the Christian Democrats. If he were able to lure the US away from forming a coalition with CSSD Chairman Vladimir Spidla and, at the same time, persuade US to help ODS revive the political right, he would not only undermine the socialist government but could save his dominant position on the political right. In an ODS-US alliance, the ODS could attract conservative nationalist voters, while the US would be a home for liberals who care about the EU. To achieve this Klaus would, however, have to tone down his anti-EU rhetoric.

Klaus may also try to solve the leadership problem in ODS by attempting to run for president. Since the election results significantly decreased his chances of being elected president by the Parliament, he may stop opposing the direct election of the president and his party may support a constitutional amendment that would make the popular vote possible. Klaus is, however, a deeply polarizing figure, and even massive support from his friends in the show business may not be enough to get him elected.

Finally, Klaus may simply bet everything on an anti-EU card. If he winds up in the opposition, he may put away his last pretenses about "no alternative" to EU membership and campaign openly against membership before the accession referendum next year. Should he be able to persuade a majority of Czechs to vote against membership, the pro-EU government would have to step down and Klaus could return with a significantly strengthened mandate as well as a less schizophrenic agenda than that he used in the electoral campaign.

Prague Business Journal - 24. 6. 2002