Editor's arrest launches Czechoslovak elections


By Sally Low
and Peter Annear

PRAGUE — "I don't want to speculate, but I think you have to ask who is going to profit", Vaclav Bervida, foreign editor of Rude Pravo, commented on the March 16 arrest and imprisonment for four days of that newspaper's editor in chief.

This incident, which was also used as an excuse for a police search of Communist Party offices, follows legal proceedings to deprive the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party of a building which was restored to it in 1989 and the dismissal of the federal chief prosecutor. All these events seem calculated to benefit the right in the June 5-6 federal elections.

Editor Zdenek Proybny has subsequently been charged with defrauding the state because, during the period of confiscation of Communist Party property, along with the rest of the Rude Pravo staff, he re-registered the paper in the name of a new joint stock company independent of the party.

Bervida maintains the transaction was legal, and it does not differ from the process followed by workers at several other papers. But the leftist Rude Pravo is now the most widely read and respected independent opposition newspaper in the country, whereas most of the others are pro-government.

Gone are the tolerance and euphoria of the Velvet Revolution and the broad consensus of the June 1990 election. Then the Czech Civic Forum and the Slovak Public Against Violence (VPN), two broad movements that united most opponents of the Communist Party, won convincing victories.

Now both have split, and the political spectrum is divided among scores of parties. Amendments to the electoral act require all parties to declare whether their candidates have been screened for past Communist activity. The scene has been set for an election campaign marked by denunciations and character assassination.

The monetarist right, dominated by federal finance minister Vaclav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS), are assured of the largest vote in the Czech republic, where two-thirds of the country's population live. However, its social democratic and nationalist opponents in Slovakia and increasingly strong left of centre groups within the Czech republic could prevent the ODS from forming a government. February opinion polls indicate that opposition parties could win a majority.

Support for Klaus is high in Prague. Unemployment is still below 2% here. Trading, tourism and some foreign investment have transformed the atmosphere, and a small layer of newly wealthy entrepreneurs, symbolised by the country's first millionaires' "Golem Club", is highly visible.

Outside the capital, the glitter has not spread far. Farmers are threatened by attempts to break up their cooperatives and privatise land. Regional centres that previously relied on subsidised industries

Eight million people — a figure roughly equivalent to the number of eligible voters — have shown enough hope in the reforms to invest 1000 crowns ($50) in the coupon privatisation. While not a huge amount of money, it does imply a certain stake in the scheme's success.

The Lustrace screening law, along with article 260 of the Criminal Code, which equates and outlaws Communism and fascism, may become important election issues. Bodies such as the International Labour Organisation have criticised the laws for contravening international covenants.

Although he signed them into effect, President Vaclav Havel has remained critical of this attempt to allocate collective guilt for the past. However, he gave in to demands that chief prosecutor Ivan Gasparovic be dismissed after Gasparovic had refused to annul the statute of limitations and apply laws retroactively. One of the new prosecutor's first actions was to begin the proceedings against Rude Pravo.

Also important will be the question of autonomy for Slovakia, where unemployment is around 12% as compared to 4% in the Czech republic. This has fuelled both opposition to the economic policies of Prague and support for autonomy. Vladimir Meciar, made premier in 1990, then ousted when the VPN split, has remained very popular. His left of centre Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) registers around 30% support.

In March the previously low-profile Slovak Social Democratic Party (SDSS) became a major contestant when Alexander Dubcek, chair of the federal parliament and head of the 1968 reform government, announced he would head its ticket. The SDSS could attract a considerable number of voters who would otherwise have opted for the HZDS or the Party of the Democratic Left (SDL), which was formed out of the Slovak wing of the Communist Party and maintains 9% support.

Premier Jan Carnogursky's Christian Democrats are Slovakia's strongest rightist party, with 14% support. In March, a more nationalist minority split from the party and will present a separate ticket.

The likely 30-40% vote for the ODS and other rightist parties in the Czech republic and perhaps 40% for the left of centre in Slovakia should make the formation of a workable government difficult. Klaus is rumoured to have threatened to allow the country to split rather than compromise his economic program.

Two Czech social democratic groupings, the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party (CSSD) and the Liberal Social Union, which incorporates the Czechoslovak Socialist Party, the Czech Green Party and the Agrarian Party, together register 17% support.

The Czech Communist Party still attracts 9% of those polled, and this may increase because it will stand in the election in a Left Bloc with a smaller grouping called the Democratic Left and several independent individuals, including well-known academic and former dissident Ivan Svitak and the president of Left Alternative, Vrata Votova.

Svitak sees the bloc as a possible step towards a new left force that is not weighed down by the past and that is able to overcome the present isolation of the Communist Party. The left must oppose the right's "McDonaldisation" of the economy and trends towards authoritarianism, he says.

Support for social democratic groups does not necessarily signify a radicalisation. Nearly all of them refer in a somewhat vague and utopian way to a social market economy along the lines of Germany or Austria. Some, including the Czechoslovak Social Democrats, would probably prefer Klaus to govern rather than be seen to be allied with the Communist Party. None have any alternative to capitalist restoration.

If he decides to stand again, Havel's position as president is probably safe. He is still very popular, and nearly all Czech and some Slovak parties have said they will support his re-election by the new parliament. Of the rest of the former dissidents and liberal intellectuals who helped give the Velvet Revolution its character, some have formed Democracy 92, a would-be presidential party with the expressed aim of preserving the common state. The group's chances do not look good.

Others, led by Foreign Minister Jiri Dientsbier, remain in the Civic Movement (OH), which is currently supported by 5% of Czechs. Since the Civic Forum split, OH members have held dominant positions in the government but lacked a majority in parliament.

Ivan Gabal, OH election campaign manager, attributes the low support to their members' efforts to "continually shuttle between the ODS and the opposition". Now, he says, the group needs to establish an identity of its own.

A coalition government after the June elections will probably be dominated by the ODS, which has so far maintained the political initiative. But depending on who its partners are, the power of the right may be enhanced or weakened. The Rude Pravo affair indicates scant regard among some of Klaus' supporters for the niceties of freedom of expression and judicial independence.