Either Václav Klaus or Miloš Zeman, leaders of the ODS and the ČSSD, respectively, will lead the Czech government following the June 19-20 general elections.
But they obviously hadn't read the script. Instead, voters confounded pre-election opinion polls by appearing to support another version of the center-right group, that had collapsed seven months ago following a string of corruption scandals.
Although the Social Democrats (ČSSD) garnered the most votes with 32.3% - nearly 5 percentage points more than their bitter rivals, Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS, 27.7% of the overall vote) - observers fear that ČSSD leader Miloš Zeman will be unable to find enough partners to form a stable government.
"We have suffered a victory," grimaced ČSSD deputy Jaroslav Bašta. As expected, President Václav Havel on June 22 formally asked Zeman to hold talks on forming a new Cabinet. Klaus had even encouraged Havel to do so. "I also told [Havel] the ODS was ready to work on forming a possible non-left government coalition if such a chance appears," Klaus coyly added.
"We managed to convince the voters not to allow a turn to the left," Klaus had crowed after the votes were counted. "We are still on the true path."
Well, maybe. More likely observers say, the election results have ushered in a period of stalemate. Weeks, or possibly months of it. All eyes are now on Havel, the one-time dissident playwright and moral conscience of the nation, who is set to act as an honest broker.
Forging a coalition
He'll have a difficult task ahead of him. Since an alliance with the strong-showing but widely reviled Communist Party (KSČM, 11%) has already been ruled out by both major parties, only two majority coalitions appear possible - a government led by either ČSSD or ODS, with the central Christian Democrats (KDÚ-ČSL, 9%) and the right-wing Freedom Union (US, 8.6%) in support.
Of those permutations, Havel favors a ČSSD-led Cabinet. "Turning [back] to the right would make these elections senseless," said Jiří Pehe, Havel's senior political advisor. "Why did we spend 1 billion Kč [(30.3 million] on elections, just to go back to the same coalition?"
Still, the Czechs may have to. Havel already met with each of the leaders of the four possible coalition partners to try to forge some viable partnership, but found out that he had his work cut out for him.
"There are a lot of old scores dating back to the last Klaus government," said Jan Švejnar of Charles University's Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education. "At least one of the leaders would probably have to step down to get around the personal differences. Who knows what will happen? Who knows how long it will take?"
Even with the KDÚ-ČSL ready and willing to jump into bed with the ČSSD, US leader Jan Ruml has so far ruled out a cohabitation with his archenemy, Zeman. [The ČSSD's] views and ours are diametrically opposed," he said. "What kind of message would it send our supporters? They'd never trust us again."
On the other hand, if the KDÚ-ČSL choose to throw their support behind the right-of-center parties, they would be able to form a wafer-thin majority of two seats. That would mean Klaus's return as head of a new version of the same coalition whose break up led to the recent elections.
The trouble is, both Ruml and KDÚ-ČSL leader Josef Lux, have hinted that for any center-right coalition to emerge, Klaus would first have to step down as leader - and that is unlikely.
"Klaus is now the ODS," commented Jonathan Stein, political analyst with the Institute for East-West Studies. "And the ODS knows it. It'll be 'Klaus as premier' or 'no deal'."
If Klaus does end up climbing his way back up the slippery pole, it will constitute one of the great comebacks of modern Central European politics.
As the architect of the Czech Republic's post-communist economic transformation, Klaus began losing popularity after he barely scraped together a second term two years ago.
The collapse of rogue banks, his toleration of innumerable insider-trading scandals and a willingness to prop up lame-duck employers with soft loans and state handouts, did immense damage to the Klaus administration's international and domestic reputation. Eventually, Klaus was ousted last December by his Christian Democrat partners and members of his own party, ushering in a caretaker administration made up of non-elected technocrats, KDÚ-ČSL ministers and ODS defectors who left to form the US.
But during his six months out of power, Klaus used the ODSş immense party infrastructure to rebuild his image, focusing on big issues and distancing himself from his government's tarnished record.
Extremists and Pensioners out
Perhaps the biggest upset of the election was the failure of the ultra-right Republican Party, with its inflammatory rhetoric against the Czech Republic's Romany minority, to win the five percent necessary to qualify for Parliamentary seats. Another party, the Pensioners for Secure Living (DŽJ), a far-left single-issue outfit widely tipped to win big among disaffected voters, also fell short of the 5% threshold.
It was the DŽJ's failure that really took the wind out of Zeman's sails. "If [the Pensioners] had got in, Zeman would have had the thing sewn up," said Stein. "He could have worked out a deal with them, and used that to twist Lux's arm." Even so, Zeman was putting on a brave face for his Pyrrhic victory. "If nothing else, Czechs have shown their maturity, " commented Zeman. "They resisted the temptation to vent their frustration by voting extremists [into office]. That's something to be grateful for."
This article originally ran in The Prague Post.
2. Jul 1998 at 0:00 | James Drake