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Czech Voters Take a Left Turn

Elections: Ruling Social Democrats win, but Communists make a strong showing.

June 16, 2002|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Parties expected to form a strongly pro-European, center-left Czech government won a razor-thin majority in parliamentary elections Saturday.

Vladimir Spidla, 51, a historian turned politician, appeared poised to become prime minister after his Social Democratic Party finished first.

"We will strive to create a modern welfare state and prepare for joining the European Union," Spidla said Saturday evening.

In a reflection of voter anger at corruption, growing disparities in wealth and the pain of transition to a market economy, however, the Communist Party made by far its best showing since the 1989 collapse of a Soviet-backed dictatorship.

Although not expected to join the new administration, the Communists finished third in the two-day election, winning a projected 41 seats in the powerful 200-member lower house of Parliament.

"It is clear Czech people voted left, voted for social justice and social security," said Miroslav Grebenicek, the Communists' chairman.

Since the establishment of democracy here nearly 13 years ago, all major parties have ostracized the Communists and rejected any notion of cooperation with them. But politicians from other parties will now be forced to accept them as part of the political mainstream, Grebenicek triumphantly predicted.

As results came in, Spidla said he expected to form a new government with a coalition of two centrist parties, even if that combination fell slightly short of a parliamentary majority. Such a government would be possible if tolerated by a few legislators from the conservative or Communist opposition.

But with more than 99% of the votes counted late Saturday, it appeared that such a coalition would have a fragile majority and that votes from opposition members of Parliament would not be needed to put it in power.

The Social Democrats won a projected 71 seats, while a coalition of Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union were expected to take 31 seats.

Spidla ruled out cooperation with the Communists or a coalition with the center-right Civic Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, which placed second with a projected 57 seats.

Turnout was low at 58%, compared with 74% in 1998.

A government headed by Spidla would be firmly committed to rapid European Union entry, targeted for 2004. Spidla has been a deputy prime minister for the last four years.

Klaus, who favored a much tougher negotiating stance in seeking EU admission, had hoped to stage a comeback as the country's most powerful leader. For him, Saturday's results were a stinging defeat.

"All democratic parties lost. The only winners are the Communists," Klaus said.

Asked whether he would resign as the Civic Democrats' leader at a party meeting Monday, he replied: "Allow us to examine the situation in peace."

Klaus is widely viewed by both his critics and supporters as brilliant but also arrogant and abrasive. A strong advocate of free markets and low taxes, he ran a nationalistic campaign that sought in part to play on voter doubts about joining the EU.

President Vaclav Havel, a former dissident who was repeatedly jailed by the Communist regime, had favored a center-left victory and could be expected to take pleasure in the defeat of Klaus, his longtime rival. But the strong showing by the Communists could give him no joy as he looks toward completing his final term as president early next year. The lower house of Parliament and the Senate will jointly elect Havel's successor.

Havel spokesman Ladislav Spacek said the president would meet with the leaders of all parties that won seats, except the Communists, to discuss formation of the next government. That would continue Havel's refusal to deal with Communists.

But Grebenicek said such days will soon end.

"Havel will not be president six months hence, and his successor will have to act differently," the Communist leader said.

In several other former Soviet-bloc states, Communist parties changed their names, formally endorsed multiparty democracy and market economics, and fared well politically over the last decade as social democratic parties.

Hungary and Poland--the two countries most frequently compared to the Czech Republic because of their similar political pasts and current relatively strong economic levels--both have elected left-leaning governments in the last year that are led by former Communists turned social democrats.

*

Special correspondent Iva Drapalova contributed to this report.

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