Czechs turn against father of their Velvet Revolution

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THE STAR of one of Europe's few leaders regarded across the world as a moral titan is finally fading. Vaclav Havel, the Czech President and former dissident whose struggle against communist tyranny encapsulated the revolutions of 1989 that toppled the Soviet bloc, has lost the support of most of his population.

As the figurehead of the `Velvet Revolution' that brought down the hard- line Czechoslovak regime in November 1989, Havel for years enjoyed widespread support across the Czech political spectrum.

Now 55 per cent of Czechs believe he should stand down, according to an opinion poll by the state demographics organisation, IVMM.

The reason cited by most respondents was his poor health. He has never fully recovered his strength after an operation in 1996 to remove a cancerous tumour on a lung, and there were fears for his life twice this year after he suffered a ruptured intestine on holiday in Austria at Easter and this summer became ill with pneumonia.

Sensing his political weakness the Czech media have launched repeated attacks on his sometimes turbulent private life. President Havel, 62, married his present wife Dagmar Veskrnova two years ago. His wife is not popular - 18 per cent of those polled believe she has a negative influence on him. Twelve per cent believed the President no longer had the moral authority to govern.

Although the post of president in the Czech Republic is largely symbolic, analysts say that Havel's moral stature helped to steer the transition between Communism and democracy, and was also an asset in helping to position the Czech Republic alongside Hungary and Poland as front-runners for EU and Nato membership.

President Havel has also taken a clear moral line on issues such as the endemic anti-Roma (Gypsy) racism that tarnishes the Czech Republic's otherwise liberal image.

President Havel's western-leaning views and his artistic past as an acclaimed playwright have helped to attract foreign investment into a country seen as stable under his presidency.

But his waning popularity is symptomatic of the end of an era, say analysts. There is a growing feeling across the Czech Republic that the time has come to move on from regarding their nations as post-Communist states still in a period of transition.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland will join Nato next spring, and EU accession is expected to follow a few years into the millennium.

President Havel and his wife are now on a convalescent holiday in the Canary Islands, where they will spend three weeks at La Mareta royal residence on the island of Lanzarote as the guests of the Spanish King Juan Carlos.

Before leaving, he hinted that he would step down if his popularity continued to wane. "I assure you I will certainly not be in office against the will of our nation," he reportedly said.

But even with the latest opinion poll results, for many Czechs, Havel remains the moral leader of the Czech Republic.

"He is a real force for us, both domestically and internationally. For Czechs he is a linchpin and his name is equivalent to the size and strategic position of Poland," said Ivan Gabal, a former adviser to President Havel.

Even his political rivals such as the former prime minister Vaclav Klaus, whose Thatcherite-style privatisation policies while in office were not supported by the President, offered their support. "If politicians resigned in reaction to a single opinion poll, it would be extremely bad," Mr Klaus said.