Czech left turn fails to end crisis

CZECH VOTERS moved to the left and gave the Social Democratics a victory in elections held over the weekend. However, the margin may have been too narrow for the party to form a viable government or resolve the political instability that has plagued the country since the collapse of the centre-right coalition led by former prime minister Vaclav Klaus.

"We have suffered a victory," one Social Democrat deputy said. Unofficial results give the Social Democrats 32.3 per cent of the vote, an improvement over their showing two years ago and the party's first electoral success since the 1989 revolution.

But their bitter rivals in Mr Klaus's right-wing Civic Democratic Party received 27.7 per cent of the vote. This was a remarkable comeback for the former Czech leader and suggests many voters were ready to overlook the economic crisis and financial scandals which marked his last year in office and led to his resignation in late November.

As his party was winning single-digit support in the polls only three months ago, Mr Klaus was justifiably moved to call the outcome "an unbelievable dream result".

But the elections may yet turn into a nightmare for President Vaclav Havel, who will start the negotiations for a new government today by meeting with the heads of the four democratic parties.

President Havel will probably first ask Milos Zeman, the head of the Social Democrats, to try to forge a governing coalition. However, Mr Zeman's possibilities are limited. He has said that he favours a coalition with the Christian Democrats, on the model of the Austrian government. But the numbers simply do not add up.

Under the Czech proportional electoral system, the Social Democrats will have 74 deputies in the 200-seat lower house of parliament. With the 20 seats allocated to the Christian Democrats, this coalition would fall well short of the necessary majority. And Mr Havel is unlikely to accept a minority government led by Mr Zeman that relies on the tacit support of the hardline Communist Party, which received 10 per cent of the vote and will have 24 seats in the new parliament.

A more likely scenario would have a new version of the conservative coalition Mr Klaus headed for five years.

The most surprising resultwas the failure of the extreme right-wing Republicans to surpass the 5 per cent hurdle required for representation in the Chamber of Deputies.