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Czech Republic: Elections Bode Little Hope Amid The Gloom

Prague, 18 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Republic goes into parliamentary elections this weekend (June 19/20) amid widespread gloom. The economy is moribund, and chances are considered negligible that voting will produce a strong government to tackle the general malaise.

One thing is striking in this rather somber landscape. The presence of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus is pervasive. Klaus, driven from office when his coalition collapsed late last year amid recriminations of arrogance, incompetence and corruption, has not faded from the political scene as expected. Klaus, the architect of Czech reform, has re-emerged as a central figure in the pre-election campaign. Czech affairs specialist at RFE/RL, Jefim Fistein, sees Klaus's survival as remarkable.

"It's absolutely phenomenal, all the opposite predictions proved false, and the reason for this is that what Klaus really succeeded in doing was building what you could call a people's party, (the ODS), a party which has deep roots into the Czech population, and which has a very large net of local organizations and very many dedicated people".

Since the collapse of the Klaus minority coalition government in November, the country has been led competently enough by a government of technocrats under Prime Minister Josef Tosovsky, a quiet, former central banker. The non-political interregnum is presumably about to end, but Fistein says prospects that the politicians will be able to put together a strong government after the election appear nil.

"It's absolutely impossible because the divisions in the Czech population are deep, and already sufficiently crystallized for one to say that the changes in voting patterns will be small. That is to say, about half the Czech population are left-wing, and about half are right-wing."

Pre-election opinion polls indicate the strongest single party is the leftist Social Democrats (CSSD), led by Milos Zeman, which could take about 25 percent of the votes. Not far behind is Klaus's ODS, the conservative Civic Democratic Party, with something over 20 percent voter support -- a remarkable showing considering the ODS split after Klaus's fall from office.

These two main parties however are not expected to gain enough votes to govern in their own right. Some see the best chance for stability in the short term as the formation of a grand coalition between the two -- despite the fact that both parties say they don't want that. Such a coalition could provide the opportunity for a reform of the electoral system, a change widely viewed as a necessary if future elections are to produce clear winners instead of political gridlock.

But if Klaus and Zeman do not form a grand coalition this time, the stage is set for messy negotiations between bigger and smaller parties, in which President Vaclav Havel will play a key role. Some of the minor parties have pledged not to work with one another, which will complicate the issue.

The two "untouchables", considered unfit to be full coalition partners, are the Republicans on the far right, and the Communists on the left. But the communists might yet have a role to play: one possible scenario is a minority administration led by the CSSD but gaining additional support in parliament from the communists.

In the prosperous Czech capital Prague, optimism comes easier than in the provinces. The city has full employment and the highest average wage. But for many people outside the capital, there's gloom over the falling real wages and increasing unemployment, results of an economy stagnating because the politicians are unable to provide direction, decisiveness and security.

Nearly a decade after the Velvet Revolution, economic transition remains incomplete, despite the hard reformist rhetoric of the Klaus years. Who can get the economy working again, and bring to the country the prosperity it is certainly capable of producing? That question is not likely to be answered by this weekend's elections.