Imperious to the end. Václav Klaus looked anything but resigned as he was forced off the bridge of the sinking government ship by mutinous coalition partners.
Tomáš Turek, ČTK

When Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus submitted his resignation in the early morning of November 30, he was not only the captain of a sinking cabinet ship that had been left crewless, but was facing growing funding scandals on his own watch about which he could ill pretend to be clueless. It is little wonder then that before jumping overboard, his own partymates called on him to jump first. Klaus heard them but, as every proud captain, was the last to abandon ship.

His departure not only marks the end of his eight-year career as the country's capitalist helmsman, but threatens the very viability of the right-wing forces that have steered the course for the Czech Republic during its entire post-communist existence.

Following in the footsteps of his political idol Margaret Thatcher, Klaus was pushed out by members of his own party, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), amid accusations that he had known about millions of crowns in illegal party contributions.

During the two weeks preceding his resignation, evidence began surfacing that the ODS in 1995 had received donations of 7.5 million Czech crowns ($217,000) from Milan Šrejber, an entrepreneur and a former tennis player who appeared several times on Czechoslovakia's Davis Cup Team roster. However, a much bigger scandal arose from allegations that the ODS holds a secret account in a Swiss bank, containing about 170 million Czech crowns.

Klaus's coalition government had effectively collapsed the day before Klaus tendered his own resignation, when the junior coalition Christian Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People's Party (KDU-ČSL) resigned all its ministerial posts and withdrew from the coalition. The Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), the second coalition party, followed suit with its own resignations, and the rest of the ministers tendered their resignations along with Klaus.

Klaus led the drive for a rapid transition to a free market economy - a free market "without attributes", as Klaus dubbed it. He spearheaded a coupon voucher program that privatized thousands of state-run business and, for a time, pushed the Czech Republic into the forefront of post-communist countries driving for Western integration.

The disarray caused by Klaus's resignation will hand an opportunity to the opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD), whose policies advocate greater state control over the economy and a much more protective social net.

Otto Pick, director of the Institute for International Relations, said the ČSSD could even gain an absolute majority in the next elections. He said that the opposition would have different priorities than the Klaus government, but that he did not fear a re-emergence of pre-1989 style communism.

"The impact is that not much will be done for a while, and the crown will go down the tube. It is unusual for here, but it certainly happens all over the world," Pick said.

Ironically, it is not Klaus' relinquishing of the government tiller that is threatening the survival of ODS and the right-wing policies it represents, but instead his stubborn refusal to leave the party leadership.

"I consider the resignation [as prime minister] a forced move," Klaus said in his farewell speech. "I don't think the country will benefit from the resignation, especially at such an important time."

While Klaus stepped down as prime minister, he retained his position as ODS chairman, which effectively gives him a say in the formation of the next cabinet. After November 30 initial negotiations on a new cabinet proved fruitless, President Václav Havel decided not to accept the resignations of Klaus and his ministers. Their mandate was to continue until after a new ODS chairman is elected at a special December 13 party congress. Klaus had strongly hinted that he would seek the position again, and according to several regional ODS leaders, stood a fair chance of being re-elected.

At a December 14 ODS special congress, Klaus returned from the dead with an emphatic victory over former interior minister Jan Ruml by a margin of 227 votes to 72.

"I take this as an immensely serious commitment. I take this as a responsibility and I am calling on all of you for maximum participation and co-operation," Klaus told delegates after the vote. He said also that the funding issue had been resolved by his re-election. "Congress is not an interrogation room," Klaus said. "The political responsibility was solved here."

Regardless of the outcome, observers have said that Klaus's ambitions to hold office will alone be enough to split the party. Ruml and current Finance Minister Ivan Pilip, who were the first to call for Klaus's ouster, have already been branded as "traitors" by both regional ODS officials and voters.

"If Klaus is re-elected, the party is going to remain in a slow decline," said Jonathan Stein, an analyst for the Institute for EastWest Studies. "Under Klaus, the ODS was the backbone of economic transition and reform. But now Klaus has shown himself to be out of touch with society and [with] what the party needs to do to survive over the long term. The time for a revolution party is over. If the ODS cannot transform itself into a normal political party, it could become marginal."

But Jiří Pehe, President Havel's chief political advisor, believes the ODS will disintegrate without Klaus. "It's becoming clear that the ODS has never been a liberal party or a conservative party, but a Klausist party," he reasoned.

Meanwhile, no leading Czech politician has shown any interest in taking the nation's helm. Although Havel appointed the KDU-ČSL chairman Josef Lux to conduct negotiations on a new cabinet, Lux doesn't show any great eagerness to become the next prime minister.

Klaus said the ODS had not decided whether to join the new cabinet his former allies are trying to cobble together in the country's finely balanced parliament.

Many politicians, including Klaus, suggest that early elections may be the best solution. That point has not been lost on Miloš Zeman, ČSSD chairman, who said that his party will call for early elections to be held in 1998, knowing that anyone participating in a caretaker government in the meantime would be left politically vulnerable.

Ross Larsen and Siegfried Mortkowitz are Senior Editor and Staff Writer, respectively, of The Prague Post weekly