Swing to left leaves Klaus on knife edge looking weak

Czech election: Havel pushed to fore as right loses majority
President Vaclav Havel was yesterday propelled to the forefront of Czech politics after the country's ruling centre-right coalition, headed by the Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus, appeared to have lost its parliamentary majority in a general election.

With projections based on final results indicating a political stalemate, the President, who has task of charging a political leader with forming a new government, looked as if he would become a key player in the delicate negotiations ahead.

Most analysts believed his first choice would be Mr Klaus, the leader of the conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which, despite an undoubted setback, emerged as the largest single party with just under 30 per cent of the vote.

But there were fears that, with Mr Klaus's three-party coalition expected to win only 99 of the 200 parliamentary seats, two short of an overall majority, the country could be heading for a period of political instability.

"It is undoubtedly a very fragile situation," said Jaroslav Veis, a commentator for Tydenik weekly news magazine. "Mr Havel could have a very important role as moderator."

Many Czechs were caught off guard by the election results, which, although not an outright defeat, represented a slap in the face for Mr Klaus and a less- than-wholehearted endorsement of his programme of rapid economic reform.

But unlike other Central and Eastern European countries, where reformed Communists have come back to power in their droves, the Czech protest was more modest. Mr Klaus's ODS remained the largest party and, rather than former Communists, the main winners in the poll were the Social Democrats, a centre-left party whose leader, Milos Zeman, likes to think of himself as the Czech Republic's answer to Tony Blair.

According to projections, the Social Democrats won more than 26 per cent of the vote, while Mr Klaus's coalition partners, the Christian Democrats and Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), won just over 8 and 6 per cent respectively. The only other parties to pass the 5 per cent hurdle were the Communists with 10 per cent, and the extreme-right Republicans with 8 per cent.

A clearly disappointed Mr Klaus acknowledged that the decisive victory he had hoped for had not occurred. But he emphasised that his party's showing, more or less identical with its result in the last election in 1992, was "unique in the post-Communist world".

Under Mr Klaus's leadership, the Czech Republic became one of the economic success stories of the former Communist bloc, with high annual growth rates, low unemployment and, particularly in Prague, unprecedented prosperity.

But not all Czechs felt they gained from the changes, and the Social Democrat vote evinced a desire to slow the pace towards free markets, and more concern for those left behind.

A jubilant Mr Zeman, who once declared that under Mr Klaus "Communist nonsense has been replaced by Thatcherite nonsense", yesterday claimed moral victory and began touting for coalition partners. Having ruled out an alliance with unreconstructed Communists or xenophobic Republicans, Mr Zeman could achieve a parliamentary majority only with the support of Mr Klaus's ODS, a possibility both men have ruled out.

With political deadlock staring the country in the face and fears of possible repercussions on further reforms, all eyes were turned to Prague's castle, the official seat of Mr Havel.

Although his role is largely ceremonial, President Havel has established himself over the past six years as the guardian of the Czech conscience and a figure of immense moral authority.

He has spoken out against the excesses of materialism and of the need to cultivate higher moral and civil values, much to the annoyance of Mr Klaus, with whom the President has never enjoyed an easy relationship.

As the man who negotiated the peaceful transfer of power from Communism in Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, Mr Havel's political skills have already been proved. But they are likely to be tested over the coming weeks. If no workable solution emerges, the most likely outcome will be fresh elections.