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Czech Republic/Slovakia: Whither The Political Futures Of Vaclav Klaus, Vladimir Meciar?

No two figures have dominated postcommunist Czech and Slovak politics quite like Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar. Both rose quickly to prominence following the collapse of communism, first as ministers and then as the prime ministers who presided over the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia. Following two unsuccessful attempts by each to regain power, both have recently been challenged from within their own parties. And today, Klaus announced he will step down as party leader and run for Czech president instead. RFE/RL looks at the parallels -- and differences -- in the two men's fates and asks what comes next.

Prague, 10 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's the end of an era -- and maybe the beginning of a new one -- for former Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Today, the 61-year-old Klaus announced that he is prepared to run for Czech president, if his candidacy is proposed. "Because it's inconceivable for the ruling chairman of any political party to run for president, I do not intend to run for the post of party chairman at the [Civic Democratic Party] ODS's December congress, a position I have held for 11 1/2 years."

Klaus made his announcement at a hastily convened press conference to end speculation about his future. For years, the self-assured -- some would say arrogant -- Klaus was synonymous with his ODS party and the guarantee of its success at the ballot box. But after two successive election defeats, voices within the party began in recent weeks to challenge Klaus's previously unshakable grip and openly jostle for the post of ODS leader.

In Bratislava, the knives are also out, it seems, for Vladimir Meciar, the strongman of Slovak politics who dominated the scene throughout much of the 1990s.

Three regional party organizations are calling for an extraordinary meeting of his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) later this year to decide whether to oust Meciar from the job he has held for 11 years.

Originally their parties' chief sources of popularity, both Klaus and Meciar have increasingly come to be seen as liabilities -- and the grumbles of discontent have come at around the same time.

Marek Rybar is a political scientist at Bratislava's Comenius University. He says the two share some fateful similarities: "Both, in the beginning of the 1990s -- one in the Czech lands, one in Slovakia -- were able to build up very strong political parties which, for a long time, dominated the political scene. That's one parallel. Another is that they've been moving in top politics for 10 years, and this is causing a certain fatigue."

Born within 14 months of each other, Klaus and Meciar, who is 60, came to political prominence after broad civic movements swept the communists from power in 1989. Both men soon split from those movements to found their own political parties, and both rose quickly to positions of power.

Klaus, an economist by profession, was federal finance minister before becoming Czech prime minister in 1992.

Meciar, a company lawyer until 1989, briefly served as Slovak interior minister before being appointed in 1990 to the first of three stints as Slovak prime minister.

It was as prime ministers that the two headed the negotiations that would lead to the breakup of Czechoslovakia in January 1993.

Both appeared to see this step as mutually advantageous. Meciar would gain relatively more power as the head of government in an independent state. Klaus, keen on implementing quicker economic reforms than his Slovak counterpart, would rid Prague of a potential brake on those reforms.

The real turning point for both men came in the late 1990s.

A party-funding scandal in late 1997 led to the breakup of Klaus's coalition government, and elections the next year brought the Social Democrats to power. That same year, Meciar came in top in general elections, but it wasn't enough to form a government, and he was kept from power by a group of reformist parties.

This year saw more or less the same scenario repeated -- the Social Democrats returned to power in Prague and a reformist coalition in Bratislava kept a now-weakened Meciar out of office.

Olga Keltosova, a former minister and one of the HZDS rebels, says the party's patience finally ran out after it received 19.5 percent of the vote in last month's elections. That was the largest single block of votes but the lowest-ever result for the HZDS. She spoke to RFE/RL's Slovak Service this week: "On the one hand, there's a certain disappointment with the election results because the movement has never had such a low percentage of the vote. Of course, this has prompted some tension in the regions, but also in the party structures. These are asking for an analysis of this electoral fiasco -- you can't call it anything else -- and are also suggesting ways out of this situation, and there's talk also of personnel changes."

To be sure, you can only stretch the Klaus-Meciar comparison so far.

By the end of Klaus's tenure, Western officials were growing increasingly irritated at what they perceived as his preachiness, and the economic crisis of the late 1990s took the sheen off his image as Central Europe's ace reformer.

But Klaus's reforms were thorough enough to put the country solidly on track for NATO and European Union membership -- unlike Slovakia under Meciar. The West accused Meciar of widespread corruption, of trampling on minority rights and suppressing the media, and of misusing the secret service for his own political ends, and they shut Slovakia out of both EU and NATO membership talks.

Petr Fischer, a commentator for the Czech daily "Lidove noviny," notes some other important distinctions in the two men's fates: "The HZDS [actually] won the [2002] elections but its drop in popularity was much sharper than the ODS's. What's more, Vaclav Klaus in the last electoral term was chairman of parliament, and Meciar wasn't. I think Klaus's whole position in the Czech political scene is much stronger than Meciar's."

So what now for them both?

Some in the ODS have already said they would like to see Klaus as Czech president and are calling for direct presidential elections -- at the moment the Czech president is elected by parliament -- which they reckon would give Klaus a better shot at winning.

Comenius University's Rybar says it's hard to predict if Meciar will be replaced. But he says the party faces further internal divisions if it does not make fundamental changes. "One of the possible solutions, though it would mean a defeat for Meciar, would be for he himself to give up the leadership and propose a successor. The HZDS could then officially nominate him, though it's a bit early, as their presidential candidate. But this [election] won't be until 2004, so if this happened it would be a clear defeat for Vladimir Meciar."

But don't count on Meciar to follow Klaus's lead and bow out of the top job of the party he founded. As he put it recently, "If the leader of the party that won the most votes is meant to resign, what about the leaders of other parties that got, say, three times fewer votes than the HZDS?"