Czechs, Slovaks Prepare for Vote

In this weekend's election, Czechoslovaks hope for unified government, but the choice of parties indicates a long road to consensus

FROM the looks of it, this week's state and federal elections in Czechoslovakia are likely to launch the country into a period of political turbulence.

Some people here even warn of a "repeat of Poland," where voters last fall sent so many parties to parliament that no clear majority could be formed. The result was political stalemate and a government too weak to keep reforms on a fast track.

The Czechoslovaks tried to learn from Poland's mistake, and passed a 5 percent electoral hurdle that will prevent most of the 42 parties competing in the June 5-6 elections from entering parliament.

Czechoslovakia has witnessed a common post-cold-war phenomenon - the splintering of its anticommunist movements into many parties.

But despite the electoral hurdle, many observers here fear political turmoil, saying no piece of electoral legislation can solve the country's fundamental problem: the chasm between the more numerous and prosperous Czechs in the north and the poorer Slovaks in the south.

Any new government will have to be formed around an alliance between Czech and Slovak parties, since as an anti-discrimination measure, no laws can be passed in the federal parliament without the approval of the Slovak members. The leading parties in these two regions, however, are led by ideological opposites.

The Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, by far the most popular Slovak party, is headed by Vladimir Meciar, a former communist and onetime premier of Slovakia. With unemployment running three times higher in Slovakia than in the Czech region, he wants to slow down the rate of economic reform.

He is also riding the Slovak nationalist wave and demanding sovereignty. "When we speak about emancipation and attempts to become equal, this is not directed only to the Czech republic," Mr. Meciar said at a rally last weekend. "It also applies to the wider European Community, where we want to hold talks and make decisions as equals."

The Civic Democratic Party, which leads in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, is headed by Vaclav Klaus, the country's finance minister and an enthusiastic economic reformer. Mr. Klaus says a split would only hurt Czechoslovakia.

"Meciar and Klaus will somehow need to work together. How they will do this is the question that everyone is asking," says a Western diplomat in Prague.

To make matters worse, even if Klaus and Meciar can come to terms, they may not have enough votes to form a majority. They would have to seek other partners, but the parties running closest behind them are the ex-communists whom Klaus rejects.

Czechoslovakia faces, if not a political crisis, then certainly a summer of tedious negotiations. As Klaus told a crowd of thousands at a rally in Prague Monday night, "We are at the most important crossroads right now."

While economic reforms have brought inflation under control and created a partially convertible currency, the task of large-scale privatization is just beginning.

Klaus told his supporters that on a recent trip to Switzerland, "everyone asked me whether, as in some other Eastern European countries, reform will stop in mid-stream," and then he warned voters that the left wing still presents "dangers" to Czechoslovakia.

Klaus is viewed as the father of economic reform and an absolute break with the communist past. As he often points out, he and his party will also enjoy the support of many Western democracies.

The main criticism of Klaus is that he trusts the free market too much; that a free market alone cannot solve Czechoslovakia's pressing social or environmental problems.

"There is clearly no guarantee that the Klaus method will work, but he's a known quantity and for quick reform," says Karen Bartoletti, the senior manager of Price Waterhouse in Prague and a member of the United States Chamber of Commerce here.

Although Klaus and Meciar are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have refrained from insulting each other, and appear to be leaving the door open for future cooperation.

Because Meciar has a reputation for changing his opinion by the day, federalists in the Czech lands hope that after the elections he will change his mind on the question of Slovak sovereignty.

"I think Mr. Meciar will be different after the elections than he was before. He himself said that if Slovakia were separated from the rest of the country, it wouldn't survive one year," says Pavil Hirs, general secretary of the Czechoslovak Socialist Party.

Diplomats in Prague say Klaus could offer Meciar a scaled-down federal government with more power going to the country's regional parliaments.

But what would this cost Klaus politically? If Meciar in return demands slower economic reform or some half return to socialism, neither Klaus nor his party members are likely to be enthused.

"If the choice is between one socialist country or two independent ones, then we are for two independent ones," says Igor Nemec, a Civic Democratic Party candidate in Prague and a minister in the Czech government.

In the last few months, in fact, more and more mid-level Czech politicians have adopted the attitude that Slovakia is becoming too bothersome and perhaps should be let go after all. Leading Czech federalists have not yet endorsed this stand.

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