Czech PM concedes defeat in 'dirty tricks' election

Showing all the qualities of a sore loser, the Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, whose Social Democrats lost the national elections at the weekend, finally conceded defeat yesterday while still threatening to challenge the result in the courts.

Mr Paroubek said he had been the victim of a dirty tricks campaign reminiscent of the worst behaviour of the Communists towards their enemies, including accusations he was a child molester. He accused the media of being "servants" of the victorious Civic Democrats.

Mirek Topolanek's Civic Democrats won the larger share of the vote but not a majority in the country's first national election since it joined the EU in 2004. Political stalemate, reflecting a split between Czechs urging free market reforms and others concerned about maintaining a social welfare safety net, has been a frequent occurrence since the Communists were thrown out in 1989. The Civic Democrats' plans to invigorate the economy with a flat tax may now have to be shelved.

The way is now cleared for the conservatives, with their radical agenda for tax reform in some doubt, to try to form a government despite the stalemate which gave centre-right and leftist parties exactly the same power in the lower house. The Civic Democrats and its two smaller potential centrist allies, the Greens and Christian Democrats, now hold 100 seats in the 200-member lower house - the same as the ruling Social Democrats and the Communists.

Vaclav Klaus, the Czech President, said he will now order Mr Topolanek to begin talks today to create a coalition government.

"I will recommend to the party to go into opposition", Mr Paroubek said, adding that "the Social Democrats are ready to help such a solution that would be stable". "There's no doubt the Civic Democratic Party is the election winner, though I don't think this was achieved by fair means."

Any prospect of the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats teaming up in a so-called grand coalition were eclipsed when Mr Paroubek refused to congratulate Mr Topolanek, saying his "agents'' had violated campaign laws. He threatened to file a protest in court. A continued deadlock would delay plans to pass a 15 per cent flat tax, fix the unprofitable retirement system, sell more state assets and adopt the euro this decade.

The Civic Democrats took 35.4 per cent to the Social Democrats' 32.3 per cent, ending the eight-year rule by Mr Paroubek's party. The Communists, isolated from government influence since they were ousted in 1989, won 12.81 per cent. The Christian Democrats garnered 7.22 per cent and the Green Party made it into the parliament for the first time with 6.29 per cent.

With one seat short in his preferred coalition, Mr Topolanek could seek a larger coalition with the Communists, a grand coalition with Mr Paroubek, or support from individual Social Democratic lawmakers for a minority government. He has held open all options apart from an alliance with the Communists.

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