Something Old Turning Into Something New

The Czech elections and the comeback of Vaclav Klaus

The Czech parliamentary elections last month saw for the first time since the Velvet Revolution the emergence of a left-wing party to prominence. However, with the political maneuvering to form a coalition government over, the establishment of a center-left/center-right government represents more of a victory for former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus than for a change in the political orientation of the country.

Forced into a coalition situation, the Social Democrats, who had won the most seats, had a choice of either forming a government with its former rival, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), or a combination of smaller parties, namely the communists, the Christian Democrats, and the break away faction of the ODS, the Freedom Union. This latter grouping wasn't even an alternative, however, since co-operation with the communists was rejected outright by the Social Democrats. At the same time, the Freedom Union refused to consider going into a coalition with the Social Democrats, their decision based on their political conviction not to work with any party from the left.

The ODS, meanwhile, had no such scruples. For them, political expediency was the most important. As a result, it has now given Klaus the clout to deal with those who had turned against him and brought his government down.

There is no doubt about the significance of the apparent political comeback of Klaus. The most unhappy about this development is perhaps the Czech President, Vaclav Havel. According to some observers, it was Havel who helped to insure the fall of Klaus. Hence, the phoenix-like return of the ODS leader onto the political stage doesn't bode well for the future.

This is especially so for the smaller parties. The new government is considering changing the electoral law to one of majority vote as opposed to the present system of proportional representation. Because of the combined majority of both the Social Democrats and the ODS, the government has the power to make this change.

A change in the electoral law would prove detrimental to the smaller parties, and may conceivably render the present Czech democracy into a two-party system. The Freedom Union would be particularly affected by this. Many are already wondering about its present role. With the ODS back in government, albeit as a junior partner in the coalition, the party will surely come under pressure as Klaus regains some of the support he lost.

Thus, it is very possible that if the new government makes a change to the electoral law then new elections would be held soon after. In this way, both the Social Democrats and the ODS would be able to consolidate their power by weeding out the weaker parties.

Aside from such political considerations, the coalition partners have little else in common. This is especially so on the economic front. Both sides appear unable to deal with the sluggish state of the Czech economy. As a result, the prospect of continued stagnation carrying on into the Third Millennium is a very real concern.

Unless both the left and right co-operate on some of the more basic issues and challenges facing the country rather than furthering their own agendas, the progress that had been made over the past eight years may be in jeopardy. Indeed, with the declining health of the President who, in the eyes of most, represent a force of change and stability, the future looks more uncertain now than ever before. (John Horvath)