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Czech Social Democratic Opposition Flexes Muscle

Prague, July 16 (RFE/RL) -- Last month the Social Democrats emerged as a new power to be reckoned with in Czech politics.

The Social Democrats won more than 60 seats in the 200-seat strong parliament. This denied the three center-right party coalition a parliamentary majority and forced Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government.

Initially, the electoral outcome sparked predictions of new elections as early as next February, particularly when the Social Demecratic leaders objected to the reappointment of several key ministers. But this danger declined when Social Democratic chairman Milos Zeman has become the parliament's speaker

Zeman is tough. Last week he postponed Klaus' submission of the inaugural policy statement to the parliament because the government had failed to provide him with an advance copy. The action also postponed the parliamentary confidence vote by at least one week. The vote is now scheduled to take place on June 23.

Zeman said that getting the text just one day before the formal debate on confidence vote does not give enough time for the Social Democrats to prepare.

Zeman's decision was consulted only with fellow Social Democrats. It came hours after a draft of the statement was leaked to Social Democratic lawmakers and the Mlada Fronta Dnes daily newspaper.

Zeman said it is high time the coalition realized that the Social Democrats are no longer a small party but a force to be reckoned with and that parliament is no longer going to be, as he put it, "a hand maiden to the government."

Klaus responded by saying that the postponement was incomprehensible. But he also said that Zeman would be given an advance text even though nothing in the Czech constititution obliges the government to do so.

In a related interview published yesterday in the International Herald Tribune, Zeman criticized the government's for inconsistencies in its privatization program. He said that the program has maintained government control over many "privatized" enterprises. And he called for management buyouts of banks and other assets still controlled by the government.

Zeman also expressed his opposition to privatization of medical and health services and education. He called for measures to combat tax evasion and fight economic crimes. And he said that he was opposed to any tax increases.

Even so, it is almost certain that the Social Democrats will refrain from opposing the government in the confidence vote.

A Social Democratic vote against the government would prompt the risk of a constitutonal crisis. It could also ruin the party's political fortunes for years to come. Analysts tend to agree that the only beneficiaries of early elections would be the ultra-right Republicans.

Moreover, the Social Democrats are likely to support the government's economic program, particularly its drive to maintain a balanced budget, despite campaign promises allowing for a budget deficit of between one and three percent of gross domestic product.