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Czech Republic: Social Democrats Hope To Gain Government Role

By Jiri Pehe

Prague, 6 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) chairman Milos Zeman says that the election victory of Tony Blair's Labor Party in Great Britain presages political turnabout in the Czech Republic.

Zeman argues there are parallels between the pre-election political situation in Great Britain and the current situation in the Czech Republic. And he likes to compare himself to Tony Blair.

On the surface, Zeman's arguments appear to be sound. His main opponent, Civic Democratic Party Chairman and current Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, describes himself and his party as liberal and conservative. On the issue of European integration, Klaus has repeatedly espoused Euroskeptic views that are close to those of some British Conservatives.

Opinion polls show that only about one quarter of Czechs are satisfied with the political situation in the country. The public's confidence in the government has been steadily declining; only some 45 percent of Czech now trust their government. Observers have described the coalition government as "tired" and Klaus himself as exhausted and devoid of new ideas.

But this is where the similarities with Britain end. There is, in effect, a large discrepancy between Klaus's conservative/liberal rhetoric and his practical policies. And, rather than resembling moderate Tony Blair, Zeman himself resembles Neil Kinnock, whose confrontational political style, one can argue, was among the causes of Labor's electoral failures when he was at the party's helm.

The Czech Republic has many political and economic problems. The country has recently been plagued by all too numerous cases of fraud in the banking sector and investment funds. Klaus's government was for months unable to deal with these cases, waiting until mid-April to come up with corrective measures. It is still far from certain whether these measures can improve the situation. The coalition government has been weakened by a loss in public support.

It would seem that under such circumstances Zeman's opposition Social Democratic Party is well-poised to replace Klaus' right-of-center coalition. In the last general elections, in June 1996, it finished second with 26 percent of the popular vote, only 3 percentage points behind Klaus's party. But Zeman's combative style, his lack of tolerance for intra-party critics, and recurrent attempts to court extremist parties have made both him and his party difficult to accept by many Czech voters.

Instead of attracting centrist voters, Zeman has scared many of them with his radicalism. As a result, even the Czech voters finding it difficult to support the coalition parties still have problems in supporting the CSSD. President Vaclav Havel has recently described their situation by saying that the public was in a "foul mood."

To large sectors of the public Zeman appears unpredictable. Last year, for example, he said the Czech Republic was a police state and claimed to have evidence that the Czech Intelligence Service (BIS) had shadowed political parties. A parliamentary committee, charged with investigating the affair, rejected these charges. But Zeman still refused to back down.

His attacks on the ruling coalition are rarely accompanied by offering alternative economic and political ideas. Zeman says he anticipates a major economic crisis, assuming that this would radicalize the centrist voters to the point where even a more radical CSSD could become acceptable to them. But no such crisis seems to be in the offing. The Czech economy is, despite all of its problems, still doing fairly well. In a comparative perspective, it still easily outperforms most other East European economies.

In order to form a government, the CSSD would need to trigger early elections and win the contest as decisively as Tony Blair's Labor Party did in Great Britain. Or to form a coalition with the centrist Christian Democratic Union (KDU-CSL), currently a member of Klaus' coalition. But the CSSD's current policies make it difficult for KDU-CSL leader Josef Lux to accept the CSSD as a potential coalition ally.

Zeman seems unable to realize that centrist voters in Great Britain embraced the Labor Party precisely because they had concluded that the New Labor would not impose any radical changes.

The experience of socialist parties which won elections in Poland and Hungary show that electoral promises significantly differ from the conduct of actual policies.

But large numbers of Czech voters still seem to assume that Zeman's CSSD, unlike the Social Democrats in Poland or Hungary, is likely to be as radical and unpredictable when in power as it is now in opposition.