Czech PM wins vital confidence vote

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The Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, yesterday heaved a sigh of relief as his centre-right coalition government survived a crucial vote of confidence almost two months after a general election saw it narrowly lose its overall majority.

The outcome of the vote was in doubt right to the end and was only made possible by mass abstentions by the opposition Social Democrats, who hold the balance of power.

Yesterday's triumph makes Mr Klaus the only conservative leader from Central Europe to win a second term of office following the fall of Communism in 1989.

But although his position in the saddle has thus been confirmed, he faces a bumpy ride.

"The confidence vote was just the beginning," said Jiri Pehe, research director at the Prague-based Open Media Research Institute. "Now the real battles are going to begin - and they will be fought over each new law."

Under a deal brokered by President Vaclav Havel, the Social Democrats agreed to "tolerate" the Klaus-led government in exchange for several key parliamentary positions. But even in the run-up to yesterday's vote, party leaders were making it clear that they expected some real influence over policy.

In the government programme now formally approved, the priorities include pressing for early Czech membership of the European Union and Nato and more privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation of prices. It also cites lowering inflation and cutting income-tax levels as key goals.

While in broad agreement with the general thrust of the programme, the Social Demo-crats are opposed to many of its details, in particular plans to introduce tuition fees at universities and patient contributions for health care, now funded by the state.

Opposition MPs are also angered by government plans to return to the Catholic Church more than 430,000 acres of forest land that were confiscated during the Communist takeover in 1948.

With Mr Klaus's coalition holding 99 of the parliament's 200 seats, its position will be in constant jeopardy and it will find itself forced to adopt more moderate positions.

The same will be true of the Prime Minister, a man not known for his fondness for compromise and someone who makes no secret of his admiration for Baroness Thatcher, right down to sharing some of her Euro-sceptic views.

In the short-term Mr Klaus's government is likely to survive because there is no credible alternative. Despite having 61 seats, the Social Democrats have categorically ruled out trying to form an alternative coalition with either the far-left Communists or the far-right Republicans.

But with no love lost between the two main sides, few in Prague are putting money on the government lasting a full four-year term.