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Czech Republic: Elections Fail To Resolve Political Crisis

Prague, 22 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech President Vaclav Havel today asked the leader of the Social Democratic party, Milos Zeman, to open negotiations with potential coalition partners to form a new government. The Social Democrats emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections held over the weekend, gaining about one- third of the vote (32.3 percent and 74 seats).

Their main rivals, the right-wing Civic Democratic party led by former prime minister Vaclav Klaus, came a very close second, with only slightly less than one-third of the vote (27.7 percent and 63 seats).

The remaining vote and seats in the new parliament were won by three parties: the Communists (11 percent and 24 seats), the Christian Democrats (9 percent and 20 seats) and the Freedom Union (8.6 percent and 19 seats).

To form a government, a coalition of some of these parties is necessary. This, however, appears to be a truly formidable task given programmatic, political and personal issues dividing possible partners.

A Czech affairs specialist at RFE/RL, Jefin Fistein, says that there are only two possible coalitions: the leftist, led by the Social Democrats in partnership with the Christian Democrats and a tacit support from the Communists; and the center-right one, headed by the Civic Democrats and joined by the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union.

Fistein says that the prospect for the leftist coalition are weak, because there is considerable opposition among the Social Democrats for even an indirect cooperation with the Communists, while many Christian Democrats appear to abhor any rapprochement with either the Social Democrats or the Communists.

Fistein also says that forming the center-right coalition will be very difficult, requiring major adjustments among the possible partners. The Christian Democratic leader, Josef Lux, could hardly see eye to eye with Klaus having brought his government down a few months ago. Also the Freedom Union's leaders have consistently objected to Klaus' style of government.

In this situation, the least one can say is that the Czechs will have to prepare for weeks of political bargaining, while the current "caretaker" government will continue to lead the country with considerable help and advice from President Havel himself.

"We have suffered a victory," one Social Democratic politician said. Indeed, while his party is an official victor in the ballot, the real surprise of the vote is the scale of public support given to Vaclav Klaus.

Ousted last year from the post of prime minister, following a series of corruption scandals involving his party and widespread condemnation of his arrogant style, Klaus has now returned to the political fore with the vengeance. And Fistein says that Klaus' return heralds future successes as well.

Fistein notes that the current percentage of the vote cast for Klaus' party is only marginally lower than that of two years ago, when the previous parliamentary election took place. And he says that the make up of Klaus' electorate: the young, the affluent and the inhabitants of large cities suggests the continuity of stable political preferences of that group.

Another surprise in the weekend election was the defeat of the radically nationalistic and racist Republicans, as well as the one-issue group of the Pensioners. Pre-election opinion polls showed that both groups had significant public support and would win a number of seats in the parliament. Those prediction did not materialize, as the two failed to clear the five-percent hurdle required for representation in parliament.

Fistein says that the popularity of the Republicans and the Pensioners was linked in the public's perception of those groups as "protest" formations.

Fistein says that, in the last moment, a large number of the potential Republican voters switched to the Social Democrats seeing in them opponents of the right-wing economic and social policies of the recent governments as well.

The weekend elections came two years early. Few observers of the Czech political scene expects the new parliament to last the full four-year term.

The continuing uncertainty could prompt calls for a change in the electoral system to favor large parties and produce more stable parliaments and governments.

For the time being, however, the Czech Republic faces a rather long period of shaky coalitions and weak governments. This alone, and continuing public anxiety about policies, could only make it more difficult to govern the country.