Czech elections unlikely to be decisive


THE CZECH REPUBLIC: Czechs voted yesterday in general elections to decide whether the ruling left-wing Social Democrats or abrasive right-wing former prime minister, Mr Vaclav Klaus, should lead the country as it aims to join the EU.

The two-day election, the fifth since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended decades of communism, is unlikely to produce a clear result and weeks of haggling over a new coalition are expected to lie ahead.

Analysts say the most likely outcome is a centre-left government led by Social Democrat Vladimir Spidla, an earnest academic who has taken over from the Prime Minister, Mr Milos Zeman, who is bowing out of politics.

Hungary and Poland, two other leading EU candidates, have recently elected centre-left governments, a political shift that runs counter to the right-wing trend in Western Europe.

The new parliament will have to pick a president next year when Mr Vaclav Havel, playwright, former dissident and the country's best known political figure, finally bows out after two terms.

Mr Havel has signalled he does not want to be succeeded by Mr Klaus should the Civic Democrat leader fail to become prime minister. This could open the door for a comeback by Mr Zeman, but a fractious parliament could make it hard to find a new president.

Both Mr Klaus and Mr Spidla want to take the Czech Republic's 10.3 million people into the EU, though Mr Klaus, trumpeting national interests, demands a more conditional entry to the Western bloc.

Mr Klaus has criticised the government for going soft in EU negotiations and has made political capital from a dispute with neighbours Germany and Austria over the post-second World War expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia.

Under the 1945 Benes decrees, ethnic Germans and Hungarians had property confiscated and were expelled from the country.

Mr Edmund Stoiber, fighting to become next German chancellor in September elections, has led calls for the decrees to be repealed. Mr Klaus says the decrees are untouchable.