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The Czech Elections: An Overview

Prague, May 23 (RFE/RL) -- On the last day of May and the first day of June, more than 6 million eligible Czech voters will cast ballots in the second parliamentary elections since the fall of commmunism in 1989.

The latest polls indicate it could be a close battle between Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's right-of-center, Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Milos Zeman's center-left Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD).

The two parties are reportedly less than five percent apart in public preference. In contrast to other Central European countries, Czech voters are turning their backs on former communists in the country.

The Czech Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) has held steady support of seven to nine percent of decided voters, But most voters still seem to prefer the fiscally-conservative, market-oriented policies of free-enterprising Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. His ODS and Zeman's CSSD are both committed to continuing with market and political reforms in the country.

The main difference between the two parties is that CSSD is advocating more spending on social and ecological programs, even if it means running a budgetary deficit.

The debate on the issues is being conducted in a country filled with political passion.

Jan Hartl, Director of the polling firm STEM (Centre for Empirical Research), said this year's turnout is likely to be close to that in the first post-communist elections in the Czech Republic in 1992 (85 percent cast their ballots then).

He said in 1991, expectations were that five or six years after the fall of communism, people would grow tired of politics. "That's not true. It's a consistent, long-term finding in our research, which we've been doing since 1990, that there is still a very intense interest in politics. People live for public and political things. And that's reflected in the very high election turnout."

Karel Kaplan, an expert on post-Second World War elections in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, says interest in politics among Czech and Slovak citizens grew dramatically after 1945. But with nearly a third of the vote going to the communists in 1946, the country took a decisive step which led to more than 40 years of one-party rule in the country.

The fall of communism re-ignited the political passions among Czechs, Kaplan said.

Hartl said high participation in elections is a tradition in the Czech Republic, and was "even before the war."

Another tradition is to allow voters two days to cast their ballots. Kaplan said the two days of voting was first introduced in the 1970s by the communist regime.

He said the reason was strictly practical. "It was done to give people a chance to get to their cottage on the weekend."

For most Czechs, Hartl said, the key issue in this year's election is the economy. He said ODS gets most of its support from people whose concern is economic growth, ability to compete with western nations and reducing the role of the government in the economy. The second key issue is the social safety net in the Czech Republic and CSSD finds its backers among those who worry about pensions, welfare and housing.

Hartl said health care, increased crime and ethnic tensions are also mentioned as key concerns among voters.

He said most people are concerned about general issues and political leaders have responded by discussing generalities in the economy, social sphere or democracy.

"Our society hasn't matured to the point yet where people demand of politicians answers to specific problems," he said.

The lack of specifics in the campaign has had another ramification. Unlike political campaigns in other countries, where rival politicians attack each other's personalities and rival political parties try to smear each other, one can say the Czech pre-election campaign has been relatively placid.

Even President Vaclav Havel said in a conversation with the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, "it could be a lot worse. And it tends to be a lot worse, even in some far more mature democracies."

Only the radical right-wing Republicans in the Czech Republic have raised the ire of other parties with some "dirty tricks" in their campaign, like posting their own signs over billboards paid for by their opponents.

Still, that's considered more of a joke, albeit expensive for some parties, than a serious violation.

The Republicans are among a long list of minor parties the Czech voter will be able to choose from on election day.

In all, 20 parties, ranging from the communists to the Republicans, successfully registered for the election. The election commission disqualified four of the parties, the Right Bloc, the Party of Czechoslovak Communists, the Green Party and the Nationwide Citizens' Initiative; for not paying the required election deposit of 200,000 crowns (7,200 dollars).

Hartl said some Czechs favor a move that would limit the number of parties, "but they are in a minority." He said the idea of two opposing parties, as in the United States, is not part of the Czech traditions.

But he added people in the Czech Republic are still learning about democracy. "It will take a generation, or two generations and maybe in the future they will figure out which system is practical, which is impractical...For most people the debate over the advantages of a two-party system, or a multi-party system is strictly academic. They see no practical results from that."

The rapid development of democracy in the Czech Republic is now even being taken for granted abroad.

Karel Boruvka, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said there will be no international observers in the Czech Republic to monitor the election. He said monitors are sent to countries where there is some doubt about the fairness of elections. "Their disinterest shows that the Czech Republic is now considered as one of the countries with an established democratic system," he said.