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Czech Republic: Politicians Scramble To Find Way Out Of Government Crisis

Leaders of the three Czech governing parties are continuing talks today to forge a way out of the crisis that has the two-month-old government on the brink of collapse. The crisis erupted Friday after a lawmaker from the junior coalition Freedom Union party split with the government and voted against tax increases designed to pay for this summer's flood damage. The government lost the vote. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla today asked the Freedom Union's three ministers to resign. But that would leave his government with a minority in parliament. The likely winners in the situation are the Communists, who are seeking greater influence in return for tacitly supporting Spidla's government.

Prague, 16 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A month after the waters receded, this summer's devastating floods are continuing to wreak havoc in the Czech Republic. But this time the damage is political.

The floods have prompted a crisis that leaves the two-month-old government on the brink of collapse.

The crisis erupted Friday after the government lost a vote in parliament on tax increases designed to help pay for an estimated $3 billion in flood damages.

The tax hikes proved unpalatable to Hana Marvanova, a deputy from the right-of-center Freedom Union party, one of the three parties in the coalition.

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla's government has the slimmest of majorities in parliament, 101 out of 200 seats. And with one deputy away on United Nations business in New York, it needed Marvanova's vote to win. She voted against, and sank the bill.

Talks that followed this weekend appeared to suggest a way out of the crisis. The Freedom Union would be chastised, and maybe lose one or two of its three ministers.

But Spidla's left-of-center Social Democrats (CSSD) wanted tougher action: Boot the Freedom Union out of government, the party presidium told him after late-night talks yesterday.

Spidla emerged saying this was one option under consideration. "One of [the options] is a government without the Freedom Union," Spidla said.

Today, Ivan Pilip, the acting head of the Freedom Union, said Spidla had indeed asked for the party's three cabinet ministers to resign from their posts.

To be sure, there's still some hope of salvaging the current three-party coalition. Pilip said the coalition deal would have to be negotiated, and that his party is meeting to discuss the issue.

President Vaclav Havel will meet Pilip, Spidla, and Christian Democrat leader Cyril Svoboda for talks tonight before leaving for the United States.

Both Svoboda and Social Democrat Deputy Chairman Zdenek Skromach said all deputies from coalition parties should now sign written pledges to support key government bills. This may be too high a price for the Freedom Union to accept.

But Svoboda said he is still optimistic. "I'm convinced these guarantees are the most important thing for the Social Democrats, that they want to reach agreement on them after meeting the president tonight. So I think there will be further talks and I still believe that we'll find the solution that we're all trying for, the participation of all [three parties] in government," Svoboda said.

If the Freedom Union does exit the cabinet, however, it will leave Spidla in charge of a minority government with only 91 deputies. In that case, he will be forced to seek parliamentary support for government bills on a case-by-case basis.

Jan Kubita, a journalist with the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes," said this would produce a more precarious government, but he noted that the Czechs have already had experience with minority governments. Spidla's predecessor, Social Democrat Milos Zeman, led his minority government for a full four-year term thanks to a power-sharing pact with the Civic Democrats. They had their problems, he said, but they worked.

Kubita said it's less likely that the Social Democrats will now seek support from the 58 center-right Civic Democrat deputies. He said the Communists, with 41 deputies, are likely to emerge as winners from the situation. "[Spidla] will need support from someone else in parliament and because he's ideologically closer to the Communists, he'll need their support to push through some bills. And in order for the Communists to support these bills, they will have to be a bit closer to their opinions. So it's clear they'll have a share of power," Kubita said.

That would suit some in the Social Democratic Party just fine. They would rather cooperate with the Communists than with the right-of-center parties. "I'm thinking of sending Marvanova a box of chocolates," one regional party leader quipped.

The party's so-called "Bohumin resolution" -- named for the town where it was adopted at a party congress in the 1990s -- bars the Social Democrats from going into government with extremist parties, including the Communists.

But Kubita noted the Social Democrats would not be in breach of this resolution if they merely seek support for certain bills where the two parties see eye to eye.

Communist Party spokeswoman Vera Zezulkova said party leader Miroslav Grebenicek had talks on the crisis with Spidla last week. "Whether we support or don't support further steps depends on how far the government will go to accommodate some of our proposals. For example, when there was the vote on the so-called tax package, the problem was that the burden of tax [increases] mostly hit people with lower to average incomes, and our party would not be able to support these proposals in the future. We will orient ourselves according to real issues that come up in parliament and we will vote accordingly. If any kind of government coalition is accommodating to these problems, then it can have our support in individual steps, but we're not going to give any blank check," Zezulkova said.

Still, the crisis has clearly fired up Communist Party ambitions. Deputy Chairman Miloslav Ransdorf said the party would seek "influential posts," possibly including those on the deputy ministerial level, in exchange for supporting Spidla's cabinet.