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Czech Republic: Senate Election Results Bring Surprises

Prague, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This past weekend's run-off elections in the Czech Republic for 27 seats --or one third-- of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, resulted in several surprises.

For one thing, the unusually low turnout of 20 percent was less than half that recorded in the first round held one week earlier. For another, the big losers were not only Prime Minister Milos Zeman's Social Democrats (CSSD), which won only three out of the 15 Senate races they contested in the second round, but also former prime minister Vaclav Klaus' conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which won only nine of its 22 races.

The two parties together did manage just barely to gain the three-fifths majority needed to make changes to the constitution. Both support changes which would make it more difficult for smaller parties to win seats in the more powerful lower house. But since both parties faired far worse than they had hoped in the Senate races, significant changes to the constitution appear unlikely in the near future.

The outcome has renewed speculation about a possible government reshuffle sometime next year. Currently, there is a minority CSSD government -- one product of an agreement with their ideological rivals in the ODS. Speculation focuses on the possibility that the CSSD government might be broadened by bringing in the Christian Democrats-People's Party (KDU-CSL) with the silent support of either the Freedom Party (US) or the Communists (KSCM).

The biggest winners in the weekend Senate runoff elections was a center-right Four-Party Coalition, which won 13 of the 14 races it contested. The four-party group is made up of KDU-CSL, US, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), and the Democratic Union (DEU). Combined, they are now the largest group in the Senate, with 28 of its 81 seats.

ODS will be the second largest party in the Senate with 26 seats. In Prague, an ODS bastion, Klaus' party lost all three Senate races to the four-party coalition. In the two most closely watched races, Freedom Union leader Jan Ruml beat Prague Mayor Jan Koukal by 21 percentage points, and former Health Minister Zuzana Roithova scored 34 points more than the ODS whip in the Senate, Milan Kondr.

The Senate elections left the Social Democrats with a total of 23 seats in the Senate, three fewer than before. Zeman termed the outcome a "failure" for his party. He said the CSSD must "markedly improve its personnel policy, mainly at the regional level," adding that "the party needs more distinguished personalities."

Other leading Social Democrats, including deputy chairwoman Petra Buzkova, said a key reason for the party's losses was a remark by CSSD Senator Ivan Havlicek, who said that the party should end its self-imposed ban on cooperating with the Communists (KSCM).

KSCM's vice chairman Miloslav Ransdorf said CSSD's ban on cooperating with Communists is finally being overcome. Two communist candidates, both small town mayors, won Senate races in Usti nad Labem and in the north Moravian district of Bruntal, a center of high unemployment, doubling the party's presence in the Senate to four seats.

President Vaclav Havel said one of the reasons for the low turnout was that many people have become alienated by politics. He alluded to what he called the "opposition agreement" concluded between CSSD and ODS after early parliamentary elections last June.

Havel also said that, in his words, "those who voted were the ones who really know what they want. That led," he added, "to a good selection, as if the more enlightened minority of citizens were voting."

Havel went on to say that voters cast their ballots for what he termed "decent, trustworthy people, with a certain program (and) shifted away from those people about whom they sensed some sort of hunger for power or contempt."

In local elections 10 days ago, ODS took the largest share of seats in Prague. But even in the local contest, Mayor Koukal of ODS won fewer votes than his main rival, environmental activist Martin Bursik, the main candidate of the Four-Party Coalition.

ODS chairman Klaus said after the vote that Koukal remains the party's candidate for Prague mayor, but Klaus conceded that negotiations aimed at striking a deal will be difficult. Unless ODS can persuade the Social Democrats or the Four-Party Coalition to back Koukal, ODS will have to come up with a different candidate. The city council is due to meet tomorrow (Nov. 26) to elect the mayor.