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Czech Republic: New Parliamentary Elections Approaching, Winners Will Determine Presidential Successor

Czech voters are due to go to the polls on 14-15 June to cast ballots in elections to the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies. The campaign has been sleepy but could be significant, since the distribution of votes among the parties will largely determine the successor to current Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose term expires early next year.

Prague, 12 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Public opinion ahead of this weekend's Czech parliamentary elections is proving difficult to measure, with two recent polls showing the incumbent Social Democrats, or CSSD, leading, and another poll showing Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, or ODS, in the lead.

What the polls do agree on is that the two-party "Coalition" of the centrist People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the center-right Freedom Union (US) will place third, and the Communists (KSCM) fourth. Other parties, including the increasingly popular Greens Party and the extremist Republicans, however, are unlikely to surpass the 5 percent hurdle required to enter parliament.

Charles University sociologist Jirina Siklova described the current election campaign as peaceful because, as she put it, "no political party wants to fall into bad favor with whomever it wants to form a coalition after the elections."

"Actually, [the campaign] has no teeth, no issues or anything like that. It's just slogans on the level of little children who really can't address anyone. So far, I don't see it as a real electoral struggle. And note that nobody is reading the party programs, which are so toothless and general that one can interpret them any way one wants," Siklova said.

No party is expected to win an outright majority. As a result, there will either be a minority government, as has been the case for the past four years; a grand coalition of CSSD and ODS, which is unlikely; or a coalition between either ODS or CSSD and the Coalition (KDU/CSL-US).

The Coalition, which until a few months ago consisted of four parties rather than two, was leading in the polls as recently as January. But it has lost considerable support after the departure of one of its members, the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) over that party's inability to pay off old campaign debts. ODA only had the support of about 1 percent of the electorate, yet the backbiting and disunity that accompanied the dispute may have cost the rest of the Coalition the support of about 10 percent of voters. In addition, US has swallowed the smallest member of what had been the four-party coalition, the right-wing Democratic Union, or DeU.

One of the leaders of the Coalition, Freedom Party Chairwoman Hana Marvanova, was the recent target of an anonymous denunciation of her private life. The libelous letter appeared in the Czech edition of the pornographic magazine "Hustler" and in e-mails that investigators traced on 7 June to what they said was its original source, a computer at CRo6/RSE, the joint venture between RFE/RL and Czech public radio.

Two journalists with the center-right daily "Lidove noviny" admit to having written the article for "Hustler" but deny having anything to do with the virtually identical e-mails allegedly sent from Cro6/RSE. An investigation is under way.

What makes this weekend's elections particularly important is that the distribution of votes among the political parties will largely determine whom parliament will elect as president for a five-year term early next year to succeed Vaclav Havel.

ODS or CSSD may well strike a deal whereby one party would tolerate a minority government of the other party in exchange for an assurance that its nominee would be elected president. While neither party has an official nominee, it is more than likely that if ODS gets to form the government, the current lame-duck Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who says he is retiring from politics, would probably become president. However, in the event of a CSSD minority government, ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus would probably be the next president.

Other likely presidential candidates are Ombudsman Otokar Motejl, a former Supreme Court chief justice and ex-justice minister, whom some Social Democrats support as a single-term compromise candidate, and the current speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Senate, Petr Pithart, who is backed by many in the Coalition.

Havel, in a recent interview in the Czech daily "Pravo," said it bothers him that the parties have not said before the elections who their candidate will be. In his words, "The election of the president should not be the subject of post-election wheeling and dealing in which various functions are divvied up."

Party leaders have been less tight-lipped about the possibility of a coalition. In an interview in the latest issue of the weekly "Literarni noviny," Social Democratic Party Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla described the Coalition's KDU-CSL and US as "principally different" from each other. "Going with them into a government would mean forming a triple coalition," he said. Spidla does not rule out such a coalition but warned that it would be a difficult arrangement to maintain.

Spidla also told "Literarni noviny" that he would do everything to ensure that no coalition with ODS is formed after the elections.

Unlike many leading Social Democrats, Spidla was never a member of the Communist Party or its youth organization, SSM. After finishing his studies in history and prehistory at Charles University, he held a variety of menial jobs before becoming a district cultural-affairs official and a museum archaeologist. Spidla helped re-establish the Social Democratic Party soon after the collapse of communist rule. He favors government subsidies for children regardless of parents' income, reducing the retirement age, and increasing the minimum wage.

Spidla appears devoid of charisma, rarely smiling and frequently limiting his answers in interviews and parliamentary discussions to just a word or two.

Spidla's main rival, Klaus, likewise, was never a member of the Communist Party. Klaus was an active economist and a founding member of the Civic Forum at the outset of the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. Klaus went on to become Czechoslovak finance minister and then Czech prime minister, leading the Czech side in negotiating the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation with his Slovak counterpart, Vladimir Meciar.

Klaus's arrogance is legendary and has made him many enemies who otherwise agree with many of his center-right policies. It was that arrogance and his perceived intolerance of dissenting views that culminated in 1997 in the collapse of Klaus's government and a split in ODS, with liberal-minded dissenters founding the Freedom Union.

Like he did four years ago, Klaus is campaigning on a platform of blocking the Socialists from power. In 1998, however, he was more interested in taking revenge on the splitters in the Freedom Union and signed the "opposition treaty," enabling the formation of a minority CSSD government.

However, Klaus may not have the chance of a repeat performance. The Czech news media agree that Klaus lost his two televised debates with Spidla and one with Zeman, in part by repeatedly demonstrating his lack of empathy.

"I think that [Zeman's] announced departure to the political sidelines is a realization that his views are hopelessly lost and outmoded," Klaus said.

"I don't think so at all," Zeman replied.

"[You're] lost for good," Klaus added.

Czech parliamentary elections are not popularity contests, although ODS, CSSD, and the Coalition all try hard to make them appear as such by personalizing the campaign through appearances by their top leaders.

As is traditional in Czech politics, voters' preferences are expressed in party lists that ensure some form of proportional representation, which in turn may well be disregarded when it comes to striking a post-election deal.

Many registered voters remain undecided just 48 hours before polling begins, and may in the end either not vote at all or else cast a protest vote for the Greens or the Republicans.