Clearing Out the Political Elite in Eastern Europe

Resignation of Czech prime minister teaches important lesson in building civil society.

Vaclav Klaus's resignation as prime minister of the Czech Republic last weekend signals the end of an era. And observers here say his departure can provide important lessons for the fledgling democracies of post-communist Europe.

Almost eight years to the day after Communist leaders resigned from power in what was then Czechoslovakia, Mr. Klaus announced on Nov. 30 that he and his government would step down due to persistent allegations in a campaign finance scandal that has spun out of control.

But while politicians here continue to haggle over the new government, observers and even the Czech president say what is more significant is the opportunity Czech society has to develop as a democracy.

While governments have changed at least once in other post-communist European countries, the Czechs have kept essentially the same leaders since communism fell on Nov. 27, 1989. And with new elections certain to be called in the coming months, Czechs have a chance to truly assess new political ideas.

A test of democracy

In an address to the nation over the weekend, Czech President Vaclav Havel acknowledged that opportunity, saying the country faces one of its biggest tests as a democratic society.

The changes the Czechs face are part of a political pendulum that swings between left and right in the region, says Vasil Hudak, director of the Prague center of the Institute of East-West Studies.

Mr. Hudak says, "In the Czech Republic the situation has been atypical, because the pendulum has been at the right for so long."

Klaus was part of the initial wave of post-communist reformers who rose to power following the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. As finance minister in the initial Czechoslovak government, he became the architect for what would be seen as a model for transforming a state-run economy to capitalism.

In the summer of 1992, Klaus was elected prime minister, and helped oversee the peaceful dissolution of the country into the Czech and Slovak republics.

That split actually served to stunt the Czechs' political evolution, says analyst Hudak. While voters across Central and Eastern Europe grew disenchanted with their initial post-communist leaders, the Czechs retained Klaus, in large part to seek stability for their new country.

By 1995 Klaus, an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, proclaimed that privatization in the Czech Republic was essentially complete.

And while in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania the former communists were being returned to power, Klaus' Civic Democratic Party, conservative proponents of the free market, received overwhelming support in parliamentary elections that year.

Invited to join NATO

The progress made with economic and political reforms in the country has been so extensive that this past summer the Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, received invitations to join NATO and the European Union.

Political baggage mounts

But with a reputation for arrogance, Klaus's political baggage began to mount. Economic reforms in the country have actually lagged.

Key sectors such as banking, health care, and various industries have yet to be fully privatized.

And international analysts say the country's unemployment rate, at about 3 percent, is artificially low.

At the beginning of summer, the Czech currency, the crown, was devalued. It has dropped sharply as a result of the current government crisis.

Klaus decided to resign under growing pressure due to allegations that his political party improperly accepted financial donations of more than $200,000.

Klaus repeatedly has denied knowing the source of the donations, and firmly rejected claims that the funds may have affected privatization decisions.

Also damaging to Klaus are revelations that his party has a Swiss bank account, allegedly containing illegal campaign contributions.

"This political crisis didn't start a week or two ago, it's been around for a year," political analyst and presidential adviser Jiri Pehe says. "This [Klaus's resignation] was a culmination of the crisis and I think it is a good thing."

In his weekend address, Mr. Havel said the Klaus government "had exhausted its conceptual potential," and that change was needed.

Havel said no new government would be formed before mid-December. The current government will remain in power until a new one is named.

Hudak says the Czechs may elect more leftist social democrats in the next vote, noting that such changes can be healthy.

He says, "Change helps clean up the political system. In these newly independent countries in Eastern Europe, there is a danger of creating a permanent class of economic and political elites. Elections are a way to help prevent that."

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