Election divides Czechoslovak federation


By Peter Annear

PRAGUE — By sending a majority of nationalist and left-of-centre candidates into the new federal parliament in June 5-6 elections, Czechoslovakia's voters signalled that the free- market economic reform program is far from widely accepted.

The plan to rapidly privatise and deregulate the former bureaucratic system, championed by right-wing parties based in the Czech republic, has driven the Czechoslovak federation close to collapse.

The Czech right, which has dominated federal politics for the last two years, has vowed that nothing will stand in the way of its desire for a free market. But because the economic reforms are devastating the Slovak economy, political leaders there have opposed them and have increasingly leaned on nationalist sentiments in order to maintain a base of support.

The situation is made more complex because the country as a whole appears to be heading into a deep economic crisis. In the wake of company privatisation, which is now in full swing, up to 50% of former state enterprises are likely to go bankrupt. The effect could be disastrous even in the Czech republic, while in some areas of Slovakia unemployment has already hit 20%.

In these circumstances, the break-up of the federation could be a convenient scapegoat for politicians in both republics who want to divert attention from their own part in this crisis. But because an overwhelming majority in both Slovakia and the Czech republic do not support dissolution of the common state, each side is looking for a way to lay the blame on the other.

Nonetheless, as the largest single party in the new parliament and the most fervent protagonist of Thatcher-style economic reform, the Czech-based Civic Democratic Party (ODS), led by federal finance minister Vaclav Klaus, bears the greatest responsibility for the continuation or destruction of the common state.

In the campaign, the ODS made it clear it will push ahead with its economic program — even if that means going it alone in the Czech republic. The ODS will not shrink from splitting the federation if the Slovak leaders do not buckle to the Czech demands.

The leader of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), Vladimir Meciar — who will now be Slovak premier — raised the stakes during the campaign by claiming his party would immediately introduce a draft Slovak constitution and give Slovakia its own president. Having been deposed as Slovak premier a year ago by forces closer to Prague, Meciar now holds enormous power and could claim to be the biggest winner in the campaign.

The dynamic towards a split has been exaggerated because neither side can control the federal parliament. The ODS captured 80 of a total 300 seats, ahead of the HZDS with 55. The formation of a federal government literally hangs on the outcome

of negotiations between Klaus and Meciar. After the first round of talks, Klaus said the federation was probably finished.

But while only a Klaus-Meciar deal could save the federation, the pressures could easily fracture the disparate HZDS — a coalition of Social Democratic, nationalist and opportunist forces. One pundit quipped that it was a question of whether the HZDS split before the federation did.

The consolidation of the ODS as the dominant right-wing party was the most remarkable feature of the campaign. Up from 20% in polls a week before the elections, the ODS took 34% of the vote in the Czech republic. In Slovakia, the HZDS also won 34% of the vote but took fewer seats because of population differences between the republics.

The ODS was heavily backed by domestic and foreign pro-market forces, including significant support from both the British Conservative Party and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria.

Margaret Thatcher, still a revered figure among the Czech right, appeared in television and newspaper advertisements for the ODS. And John Major's well-timed tour of central Europe, including Czechoslovakia a week prior to the elections, was one of the most crude interventions in the domestic politics of a European country since Henry Kissinger propped up pro-US politicians in Portugal after the 1974 revolution, according to one commentator.

Big casualties in the election were, on the one hand, prominent leaders of the pre-1989 dissident movement and, on the other, smaller right-wing parties, some of which are led by former members of the Communist Party. It appears much of the potential vote for these parties went to the ODS.

The Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), an ODS ally that had improved markedly in opinion polls, failed in the election to achieve the 5% required to enter federal parliament. Key government leaders were among the ODA candidates who failed, including economics minister Vladimir Dlouhy and agriculture minister Bohumil Kubat.

The Civic Movement (OH), led by popular foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier, a former dissident, also failed to reach the 5% cut-off. The OH, regarded as a centre party, made the mistake of opening its campaign by endorsing the economic policy championed by Vaclav Klaus and portrayed itself as a backer of policies that are widely identified with the ODS. Federal labour and social welfare minister Peter Miller was also among its casualties.

The ODS, the ODA and the OH are the three parties that emerged from the disintegration of the Czech-based Civic Forum, the broad front that won the 1990 elections.

In Slovakia, the centre-right Civic Democratic Union (ODU) also fell short of the legal minimum. The ODU came out of the broad-based Public Against Violence movement, the coalition that led the November 1989 events in Slovakia, following the split last year of Vladimir Meciar's HZDS from the movement. Its casualties included federal prime minister Marion


Even the re-election by the new parliament of President Vaclav Havel, who alienated the Slovak parties by moving closer to the policies of the Czech right, is now in doubt.

After two years in which the Czech right has held the political initiative, the success of left and nationalist parties is important. Even in the parliament of the Czech republic, the right has only a bare majority; its base in Slovakia is minimal.

But while the left and nationalist parties hold the majority in the federal parliament, 164 seats in total, they are a heterogeneous group that could hardly form a government.

In the first place, no coalition would seek to include the Left Bloc (based on the Czech Communist Party), which, with 14% of the vote, is the second largest party in the Czech republic. And there is a somewhat similar reluctance evident towards the Party of the Democratic Left (formerly Communist Party), which ran second in Slovakia, also with 14%.

Czech and Slovak Social Democratic parties did less well than expected, winning 7% and 5% respectively, despite Alexander Dubcek's leadership of the campaign in Slovakia. But along with the 6% of the newly formed Liberal Social Union (LSU — a movement comprising the Czech Farmers, Greens and Socialist parties) the three won a significant base in parliament.

Together, the left and Social Democratic parties presented for the first time ever a reasonably coherent alternative economic reform program based on state support for industry and the maintenance of social welfare.

The centre-left Slovak National Party (SNS), which demands the independence of Slovakia, won 9% of the vote in Slovakia and came in third. SNS leader Jozef Prokes accused Meciar of recently appropriating the SNS program.

Much of the support for the LSU came from rural voters opposed to the government's destruction of collectivised agriculture. The rightist parties in general did better, as expected, in the big cities where market reforms have produced most opportunities. Both the ODS and the HZDS attracted a large proportion of the youth vote.

A high voter turnout of 85% indicated that this was a very consciously decided election result. If a federal government is finally formed, it will be extremely unstable, and few people believe this parliament will see out its scheduled four-year term.

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