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Czech Republic: People Disenchanted While Politicians Battle

Prague, 3 December 1997(RFE/RL) -- Judging from casual conversations around Prague this week, there is no more unpopular man in the country than Vaclav Klaus, the long-serving Prime Minister whose coalition government collapsed at the weekend.

Klaus however appears insensitive to the feelings of his countrymen, and is actively exploring the possibility of political life after the death of his government.

"Klaus is kaputt" mutters one Prague waiter. "He's got to go", says a banker. "I'm fed up with the corruption", says a one young secretary. "He's had his day", says a middle aged woman. Behind all their comments lies real anxiety about what will happen to the country if the political crisis is not soon resolved.

Klaus has all the attributes of a fallen idol. The longest serving head of government of the post-communist countries, he was for years viewed as a near-genius who was swinging the Czech Republic into the new market era without a hitch. But the reforms stumbled, corruption became rife, and foreign investors pulled out with what money they could rescue. Klaus's collapse came at the weekend when a circle of young lions within his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) rebelled and forced him to step down amid allegations of secret party accounts in Switzerland, Swiss villas, and influence-peddling in privatization.

The 34-year-old Finance Minister Ivan Pilip, one of the main figures in Klaus's overthrow, offered himself as a replacement party leader. But Klaus, true to his character, is not stepping out of the arena meekly. As one Prague newspaper (Hospodarske Noviny) puts it, "he may have been defenestrated, but he is returning by the door."

Klaus says he will not try to be prime minister in a new government, but he has strongly indicated he will contest the party leadership at a special Civic Democratic Party (ODS) congress on December 13. Within the party, he still has solid support from regional party branches, support which younger rivals may not be able to match. Pilip has profiled himself well as finance minister in the past six months, but before that as education minister his performance did not win him many friends.

Unless Klaus agrees to go quietly, there seems no chance of re-forming a ruling coalition between a rejuvenated ODS, and its present partners the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) and the Christian Democrats. That would open up the prospect of early elections, from which the leftist Social Democrats would likely emerge the most successful party. But although many Czechs are fed up with Klaus, they are fearful of leaving the center-right political path the country has followed in the post-communist era. People in the street seem reluctant to admit they would support the opposition, in case it implies they are turning their backs on the new free-enterprise era. "We don't have many alternatives" says a Prague banker. "The (opposition) Social Democrats have no concept of how to govern the country, I would not like to see them in power".

Klaus's belief that the free market by itself would solve all problems is now dismissed as unrealistic. "He cared nothing for health, education or culture", says one fashionable young woman. "Nor did he have any moral considerations, he just thought the market would solve everything."

His errors may have dented belief in the free market, but do not appear to have seriously undermined it. What Klaus failed to realize is that the free market, as followed in the United States and West Europe, is actually a finely regulated instrument developed by trial and error over generations. Just like a football match, the players are free to compete to the utmost, to win or to lose, but they must play by the rules, or else the umpire blows his whistle. So it is with the properly developed market, where regulatory institutions are in place to ensure fair play.

Klaus did not build up this framework, with the result that an opaque capital market became rife with theft, privatization was infiltrated by "tunnellers" or asset strippers, and banks continued to accumulate bad debts.

Analysts portray Klaus as strong-minded but they say he should go because he will be unable to recognize the severe limitations of his previous approach. As one put it, Klaus is a theorist who takes things on the macro level, he's unable to see problems on a micro level, for instance to understand the difficulties of the individual factories in achieving good management practice, and in developing products which are good enough to export.

Meanwhile, the country is further losing momentum under the temporary, outgoing coalition which has no real power to lead. And affairs of state are being affected. In order to fight his political battle, Klaus has decided not to attend the December 12 and 13 summit of the European Union in Luxembourg. This key summit is to name the Central and Eastern European countries with which the EU will begin membership negotiations. State President Vaclav Havel says he will go instead of Klaus, despite his serious bout of renewed pneumonia.