- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

PRAGUE Vaclav Klaus, a towering figure in the Czech Republic's transition to democracy and free-market economics, finds himself fighting for his political life in a two-day parliamentary election that ends today.
Mr. Klaus, while less known outside the country than the other Vaclav poet-turned-President Vaclav Havel made his mark as Czechoslovakia's first post-communist finance minister. He became prime minister after the nation split into the Czech and Slovak republics in 1993, but lost that post in a 1997 scandal over campaign financing.
This weekend, he hopes to win back the prime minister post. Earlier this year, his party's victory seemed a sure bet.
But once again, Mr. Klaus' critics appear to be gaining ground, with the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which he leads, trailing the ruling Social Democratic party by 2 to 4 percentage points in the final polls before the election.
Outside the country, Mr. Klaus is perhaps best known as a disciple of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But at home, he is associated with epic battles over corruption and conflicts of interest.
Mr. Klaus' fortunes took a turn for the worse last month, when Jan Kasl, the popular mayor of Prague and a political ally, quit his party.
"People are using the party for themselves," Mr. Kasl said in an interview. "I can't serve the citizens and be a member of ODS."
The mayor didn't join or endorse another party, but his charge that ODS officials were interested in holding public office merely to advance personal interests gave a new direction to the campaign.
A dispute over legislation regulating conflicts of interest triggered the mayor's bolt from the party.
Mr. Klaus subsequently performed poorly in a pair of televised debates with Vladimir Spidla, chairman of the Social Democratic Party and the other main contender for the prime minister's post.
A major point of difference between the two parties involves Czech plans to join the European Union. The Social Democrats say Mr. Klaus is not enthusiastic enough about the idea of joining the 15-nation group. But Mr. Klaus wants the government to fight harder for fair conditions for membership.
In the TV debate, Mr. Spidla categorically rejected the possibility of forming a grand left-right coalition or any form of cooperation with Mr. Klaus' party after the election.
Much of the criticism of Mr. Klaus appears to be personal. His critics call him an autocrat, and over the years he has alienated many of his allies.


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