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Czech Republic: Voters Move Left -- Or Do They?

This weekend's parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic resulted in some big surprises and some clear losers. Many read the results -- a victory by the center-left Social Democrats and a strong showing by the Communists -- as a swing to the left. But others say the real dividing line is not left and right, but pro- and anti-European Union. RFE/RL tallies the results and looks at prospects for a new government likely to link the pro-EU Social Democrats with a smaller coalition of two center-right parties, but with only the slimmest majority in parliament.

Prague, 17 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The biggest loser in the Czech parliamentary elections on 14-15 June was the speaker of parliament and chairman of the center-right Civic Democratic Party, ODS, Vaclav Klaus.

However, Klaus, while congratulating the Social Democrats on placing first in the election, suggested in a televised discussion with other party leaders that the real winner was the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSCM. "Someone else won. The Czech Communists won. The Social Democrats lost four mandates, ODS five mandates, the parties of the [two-party, center-right] Coalition eight mandates. That is, in total, 17 fewer and [Communist leader Miroslav] Grebenicek gets all 17. It's a very, very shocking outcome, not only for me," Klaus said.

Klaus suggested the defeat of the political right is an attempt to discredit everything the country achieved since the collapse of communist rule more than 12 years ago.

But Communist Party chairman Grebenicek disagreed. "I don't think it was a negation of the post-1989 development. KSCM has undergone transformations. It's a democratic, modern leftist party. It strengthened because our citizens really want dynamic economic development, social certainty and, maybe, social justice," Grebenicek said.

For his part, the country's likely new prime minister, Social Democrat (CSSD) chairman Vladimir Spidla, dismissed suggestions the Communists were the victors in any sense. "Social Democracy is the winner of the elections. It's quite clear, if we look at how the other parties lagged behind. There's no question about this. Second, it is a very interesting winner because it is the only political force that has the ability to form a government, in principle," Spidla said.

Given the victory by the Social Democrats and the strong showing by the Communists, many commentators see the result as a victory for the political left. But this view was not shared by everyone. Columnist, ex-dissident, and former Deputy Interior Minister Petruska Sustrova had this to say: "I don't know whether one can speak of a shift to the left. Certainly, according to the scale that the Czech media uses to look at it, one can. But I think that if a coalition is formed between the Social Democrats and the two [center-right] Coalition parties, it will be a coalition facing not to the left but to Europe. In terms of the economic scale, the Social Democrats will clearly be in charge and the Coalition, in view of their weaknesses, in practice will have to agree to whatever the Social Democrats want."

Prague political scientist Jiri Pehe agreed, noting the basic dividing line in Czech politics now is not between left and right but between pro-European and anti-European forces, with the anti-EU parties being the Communists and Klaus's party. Pehe also rejected suggestions that the outcome is a shift to the left. "The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia cannot be considered a truly left-wing party. That's the main problem. It's not a problem of there not having been enough time since [the Velvet Revolution in] November 1989 and the present. Rather, the problem is that the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia plays the role that in Western democracies is played by extreme right-wing parties. They have the same slogans. Of course the party has a left-wing program. There's no doubt about that, but at the same time, it amends it with xenophobia, nationalism, populism, all those ingredients that we know from [Austria's Joerg] Haider, [France's Jean-Marie] le Pen, and the like," Pehe said.

The head of one of the Coalition parties, People's Party (KDU/CSL) leader Cyril Svoboda, said the strong showing by the Social Democrats and Communists can be attributed to two factors: the relatively low voter turnout of just 58 percent compared with 74 percent four years ago, and the issue of public trust. "I don't think it is a left-right conflict anymore, but rather an issue of the trust the voters have in political parties and the political system. Nonparticipation gives cause for thought, because those who didn't vote, didn't do so, among other reasons, because they felt 'our votes don't count,' or that even if they were to vote some sort of deal would be struck anyway," Svoboda said.

Four years ago, the Social Democrats were able to form a minority government after striking a deal with Klaus's party, which had campaigned on a strongly anti-left platform.

Pehe said a coalition of Social Democrats and the Coalition, with a combined 101 out of 200 seats in parliament, would not be quite so fragile as it seems and if formed would last its full four-year mandate. As Pehe put it, "Czechs are very conservative and will think 100 times over before voting no confidence because it would probably mean new elections and negotiations."

The chairwoman of the other Coalition party, Hana Marvanova of the Freedom Union (US), said the Communists' strong showing was a "loss for all democrats," adding, "democrats should draw certain conclusions to prevent a repetition." But she also called the results a clear indication of the Czech voters' stance on Klaus, implying many voters opted for the Communists rather than casting their ballot for ODS. "I think that the voters decided chiefly that they do not want Vaclav Klaus leading another government [as in 1992-97]. That's how I read the election results," Marvanova said.

Marvanova also attributed the shift to the left to divisions within the right, a reference both to the split in ODS in 1997 that led to the creation of Marvanova's Freedom Union, as well as to the disintegration of the center-right Four Party Coalition, which had been leading in the polls six months ago but then collapsed amid internal squabbling.

Klaus oversaw his party's campaign, which included posters with far-right-sounding slogans such as "Stop the Socialists -- the Nation Votes for Klaus" and a telemarketing campaign that alienated many voters. However, Klaus was not accepting any blame for his party's second-place defeat. He instead blamed Marvanova and her Freedom Union for splitting the right. "You know full well that it was you [Marvanova] who split the right and you know very well that you caused this decline through your irreconcilable four-year fight against Vaclav Klaus, against ODS and against the opposition agreement, and that this decline was far steeper in your [party's] case than in ours," Klaus said.

One issue that Klaus and outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Milos Zeman pushed during the campaign was to uphold the controversial presidential decrees issued during and shortly after World War II that re-established legal order in Czechoslovakia but also legalized the expropriation and expulsion of ethnic Germans and Hungarians.

Political scientist Jiri Pehe warned that the issue of the Benes Decress will come back to haunt the new government. "The issue of the Benes Decrees will doubtlessly turn up again in the event that a pro-Europe government is formed by the Social Democrats and the Coalition. I think Vaclav Klaus will try to do three things. First he will try to split this coalition. If he fails, then as a second step -- this is a prediction -- he will push for direct elections of the president," Pehe said.

As Pehe sees it, Klaus, who has opposed amending the constitution to allow the public, instead of a combined session of parliament, to elect the president, will come out in favor of direct elections because this would be the only way for him to become president. However, some analysts are skeptical that Klaus could ever attract more than 30 percent of the electorate to vote for him.

Pehe said if Klaus does end up in the opposition, which is likely, he will use the issue of the Benes Decrees in a bid to persuade the public to vote "No" in a referendum next year on EU membership.

As Pehe put it, Klaus "would thus kill two birds with one stone: He'd achieve what he's been trying to do for a long time, [to] stop us from joining the EU. And second, he would force the government out of office because the government links its future with the referendum and if it loses it would have to resign," Pehe said.