In Prague, Reform Movement Battles a Loss of Prestige

THE glory days of last fall are over. Barely four months after the collapse of Czechoslovakia's Communist regime, and with the first free elections in more than 40 years just two months away, Civic Forum, the main revolutionary force, is battling a serious loss of prestige.

Most of its best people have gone to the ministries and parliament, leaving it severely depleted of organizational talent. Few people today expect an overwhelming victory on June 8.

``The Forum has simply lost too many good people,'' says presidential spokesman Michal Zantovsky. Among these are Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, the Rev. Vaclav Maly, who has gone back to his church, and Petr Pithart, who recently left to become the prime minister of the Czech republic.

Civic Forum is now run by veteran dissident Jan Urban, with sociologist Ivan Gabal as campaign manager. Both are highly respected, but have few people around them as support. Visibly tired, they admit the Forum has problems.

``We are trying to learn the craft of politics, we are trying not to behave like amateurs, but sometimes we do,'' says Mr. Urban, a dissident for decades, who now thinks it was a mistake not to hold the elections at the end of February or the beginning of March. ``The postponement has given the old powers time to reestablish themselves, and we now face a very strong and professional disinformation campaign.''

The problems of Civic Forum are recognized by all parties involved. But the problems of Czechoslovakia today go beyond the Forum. The mood in the whole country has changed. The excitement is gone. And much of the passivity and apathy that characterized the years of Communist rule have returned.

Fr. Maly, a Roman Catholic priest and one of the leaders of the revolution, talks about hesitation in the countryside, about passivity, about people used to taking orders who now wait, unable to decide and act on their own.

``Psychologically, the majority of the people is not ready for the changes. They are not involved citizens, only observers,'' he says.

In this changed atmosphere, there is a general expectation of a low turnout in the elections, maybe as low as 60 percent. Many people also say that the vote will not produce a strong winner.

``Any party will be fine, but we want a strong winner, or at least a strong coalition,'' says Mr. Zantovsky, the presidential spokesman. ``The Forum can still win if it runs a campaign on the issues and not on the sex appeal of the Forum.''

Still, Urban and Mr. Gabal talk of victory for the Civic Forum's list of candidates, which now includes eight parties; the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats recently decided to leave the Forum and try it alone.

``We'll definitely win, with over 50 percent of the vote,'' says Gabal. He adds that among the Forum candidates are leading opposition personalities, that the Forum is nonpartisan, and that its message is positive and honest, promising only hard work.

``We don't want to win by lying to the people,'' says economist Milos Zeman, a Forum candidate. ``We want no cheap promises. We ask for victims, and a majority of the population is prepared to accept the burden of sacrifices if we give them a long-term solution.''

``You know,'' he continues, ``Churchill once said that an abyss cannot be crossed in two steps, and we prefer to do it in one.''

A recent opinion poll, however, shows considerably less support for the Forum than it claims for itself - around 25 percent. A senior Western diplomat thinks Civic Forum will get, at most, 30 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the university students in Prague who started the revolution are sitting back and waiting, or catching up with their studies, hardly participating in the country's new political life.

``For all of us, the enthusiasm is over. But I hope the next strong wave of energy will come back before the elections,'' says Monika Pajerova, one of the student leaders of the revolution last November and December. ``We need to awake the people again, to show them that no one will do it for them. We need another examination in democracy.''

Their paper, Studentske Listy, wrote recently about the ``radical drop in prestige'' of Civic Forum.

``The unity and enthusiasm have fallen apart,'' said its front-page editorial. ``The Communist Party could torpedo the transition [to democracy] if the decline of the Forum is not stopped. The velvet romanticists of Civic Forum should wake up. We really fear for the further development of democracy.''

The words might be too dramatic, but there is no doubt that beyond the overall improvement of the political and human atmosphere in Czechoslovakia - as a result of the election of Vaclav Havel as president, the new government and parliament, and the new freedom of speech and of religion - there are also serious problems.

The leadership faces coordination problems. And impatience is growing among people over the delay of economic reforms, attributed in part to political disagreement within the government and in part to the lack of personal involvement by Mr. Havel in economic issues. Many people also say that parliament is working too slowly.

Jan Petranek, foreign editor of the daily Lidove Noviny - the former underground paper - emphasizes the importance of visible changes for the people. As Ms. Pajerova sees it, a reason for the changed mood in the country is that nothing has changed for the average person, who is not involved in politics. Mr. Petranek says it is important that people are told the truth - that there will be economic turmoil, with inflation and unemployment.

Inflation, although only 2 to 3 percent, could go higher and represents a long-term problem among people not accustomed to inflation. Other problems are private ownership and the speed of price liberalization and other market reforms. Solving these issues is expected to take longer than anyone thought.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party is biding its time, lying low - ``the dead beetle strategy,'' as Michal Zantovsky calls it. After 40 years of repression and mismanagement, it has little credibility and no chance of winning the elections. But it is changing with the times and its resources are formidable.

Although it has lost 700,000 members, there are still 1 million people in the party. The Communist daily, Rude Pravo, with 860,000 copies on week days and 1.4 million on Saturdays, is still the largest newspaper in Czechoslovakia. And party bureaucrats are still everywhere.

In the latest poll, the Communists received only 13 percent of the vote. But most people find it difficult to assess the party's real strength.

Zdenek Porybny, the new young editor of Rude Pravo, says he would be happy if the party got 15 percent of the vote, adding: ``The party's credibility is null and void, it was lost 20 years ago. It had become a dinosaur with a large body and a small, very stupid head. It now needs the cure of being in opposition.''

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