- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

PRAGUE The ruling Social Democrats topped the Czech parliamentary elections yesterday but failed to win a majority, forcing the party to look to a small centrist alliance to push the country's bid to join the European Union.
But a better-than-expected showing by the old-fashioned Communists, who are opposed to NATO and EU membership, along with a sizable right-wing minority, could threaten those plans.
The new government, the fifth since a 1989 revolution ended decades of communism and resulted in the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics, will be expected to take this small republic's 10.3 million people into the European Union, probably by 2004.
The Social Democrats won 30.5 percent of the vote, outdistancing its right-wing rival, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) of Vaclav Klaus, by seven percentage points.
With 95 percent of the votes counted, the Social Democrats won 72 seats in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. The party is expected to form a coalition government with a two-party left-right alliance called the Coalition.
Social Democrats Chairman Vladimir Spidla, 51, yesterday ruled out forming a grand left-right coalition with ODS.
The Coalition finished a disappointing fourth behind the Communists getting 14.1 percent, or 30 seats, in parliament. A governing coalition with the Social Democrats would give them a majority of 102 seats.
Mr. Klaus conceded defeat after his party won only 24.6 percent of the vote, or 57 seats not enough to form a coalition with the centrist alliance.
Political analyst Jiri Pehe said some members of the Coalition would have preferred an alliance with the rightist Mr. Klaus, but now they will have no choice but to go with a socialist-led government.
The Communist Party threw a wrench in the pre-election calculus by collecting 18.8 percent of the vote, for 41 parliamentary seats.
"All democratic parties lost. The only winners were the Communists," Mr. Klaus said.
The Communists gained 17 seats in parliament while all the other parties lost seats the Social Democrats lost two, Mr. Klaus' ODS lost six and the alliance lost nine.
The strong showing of the Communists and the very low turnout evidenced voter frustration with the post-communist reform effort. Only 57.6 percent of eligible voters went to the polls about 15 percent less than four years ago.
Some observers have said that an ODS defeat would mean the end of the stormy political career for the combative Mr. Klaus. His autocratic style of governing cost him virtually every political ally he ever made.
Mr. Klaus, a former finance minister, prime minister and chairman of parliament since the 1989 collapse of communism, is, however, unlikely to be satisfied being a mere legislator.
Mr. Pehe, who is also director of the New York University campus here, said Mr. Klaus still has his eye on the presidency, which will become vacant early next year when Vaclav Havel steps down after two five-year terms.
But Mr. Klaus will need the backing of parliament in that bid because the Czech president is elected indirectly by parliament.

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