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Czech Prime Minister Gets Approval To Form New Coalition Government

By Dean E. Murphy
Los Angeles Times
PRAGUE, Czech Republic

After five days of uncharacteristic squirming in the political spotlight, Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus got the go-ahead Thursday to form a new government, even though his right-wing coalition narrowly lost its parliamentary majority in weekend elections.

Czech President Vaclav Havel made the announcement after meeting with Klaus and leaders from the country's other major political parties. Havel said he had received assurances that the parties are willing to support a Klaus-led minority government if power-sharing details can be worked out over the coming weeks.

In a humbling blow to the normally self-assured Klaus, Havel gave his nod to the ruling prime minister only after the opposition Social Democrats - the surprise left-wing spoilers in the election - consented to the arrangement. A furious Klaus had expected the go-ahead days ago, but Social Democratic leader Milos Zeman hesitated about going along.

Klaus and Zeman have long been political enemies, but Havel made it clear after the election that a new government "would be unthinkable" without the concurrence of the Social Democrats. The delay temporarily shook financial markets and raised concerns among some Western investors of political instability, but most analysts do not expect the Social Democrats to threaten the country's economic turnaround.

The party, a minor player in the 1992 elections, surged into second place this weekend with more than a quarter of the vote, finishing just three percentage points behind Klaus' Civic Democratic Party. Unlike other social democratic parties in Eastern Europe, the Czech party is not a retooled Communist party, and its leaders have supported free-market reforms - albeit with a social twist.

"We are prepared to support the current coalition, but only with guarantees," Egon T. Lansky, a top Zeman adviser, said in an interview. "We want the power in Parliament to stop some events, or control and help push through others."

Havel's decision means the only conservative government remaining in newly democratic Eastern Europe is likely to continue in power, despite a backlash across the region by left-leaning voters against post-Communist reformers. But it also means Klaus joins a long list of reform-minded politicians who have been chastened, if not tossed aside, by resurgent left-wing opponents.

Some analysts say, that Klaus underestimated voter dissatisfaction with his high-handed style.