WORLD

A Velvet Decision

A nation looks to a post-Communist future

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 11 1990
WORLD

A Velvet Decision

A nation looks to a post-Communist future

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 11 1990

A Velvet Decision

WORLD

CZECHOSLOVAKIA

A nation looks to a post-Communist future

In a vacant lot in the drab western suburbs of Prague, 200 people gathered for what seemed like a neighborhood party. Children sucked from cans of soft drinks while their parents soaked up the sun and listened to a rock band. There was little sign that the event was a rally for Czechoslovakia’s leading political movement, Civic Forum, only a few days be-

fore the country’s first democratic elections in 44 years. Even when the music stopped and the group’s candidates got up to speak, they talked blandly of what they call their “smiley politics.” Only one candidate, a lawyer named Pavel Popo vie, tried to puncture the happy mood. “It’s nice to be democratic, but we are still very poor,” he said pointedly. “We don’t even have enough money to take a pee in the West.” As Czechoslovaks prepare to vote this week for a new legislature, they face a wide range of pressing political and economic problems.

Like other newly democratic nations of Eastern Europe, the country will soon begin a painful transition to a market economy. Indeed, last month the government announced that $2 billion worth of food subsidies would be removed beginning on July 9. At the same time, an upsurge of nationalism among the minority Slovak community poses a growing threat to national unity. And many voters say that they are worried about the continuing influence of former Communists in important institutions. Still, the 23 parties and movements contesting 300 seats in the Federal Assembly on June 8

and 9 are not offering clear choices on those key issues.

Even President Václav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who led last November’s nonviolent revolution against four decades of Communist rule, concedes that a full-fledged debate on Czechoslovakia’s future will have to wait for the next round of elections

in two years. “These elections are more like a rehearsal,” he said recently. “They are free enough, but they are happening in a politically immature situation.”

In fact, voters are having trouble distinguishing among the welter of new political movements that have sprung up in recent months. Almost all groupings—even the chastened Communists—have endorsed multiparty democracy and market-based economics. In the absence of sharp choices, the election has turned largely into a referendum on the political upheaval that brought Havel and other former dissidents to power. “It is essentially about endorsing the post-revolutionary developments,” said Jan Kavan, a Civic Forum candidate and organizer. “It is about confirming the right of the team which the revolution brought to power to continue the job.”

That will almost certainly happen. Opinion polls gave Civic Forum, a disparate movement that includes both onetime dissidents and former Communists, the biggest share of the vote—about 30 per cent. Ranked second is a coalition of three conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union, with about 20 per

cent. But the Christian Democrats are expected to win the largest share of the vote in eastern Slovakia, while Civic Forum dominates in the western, Czech-speaking parts of the country.

With nationalism gaining strength in Slovakia, home to one-third of the country’s 15 million citizens, a coalition between the two political groups is a likely outcome of the elections. The Communists, meanwhile, are expected to win only 12 per cent or less of the vote, despite their new leaders’ protestations that they have repudiated their totalitarian past.

Late last week in Prague, Havel told reporters that the worst outcome of the parliamentary elections would be indifference. “The worst that could happen is if people did not vote,” he said. “But it appears that this will not occur, because there is great interest in the elections.” A final survey by the government-run Institute for Public Opinion showed that of 683 people polled, only one per cent did not intend to vote. Another 16 per cent were undecided, but 83 per cent said that they would definitely cast ballots.

The low-key, almost placid, nature of the campaign is partly a result of the enormous prestige of Havel and Civic Forum, the movement that emerged during last fall’s so-called velvet revolution. Even leaders of rival parties support Havel, the 54-year-old novice politician whose portrait beams out from countless shop windows and walls in Prague and who is a genuine hero to Czechoslovaks. Havel, as president, is officially neutral in the current campaign. But his past association with Civic Forum and its leaders has given the movement (which insists that it is not a party) a touch of his political magic.

Although it appears to have no clear position on many of the most difficult issues facing Czechoslovakia, other political leaders complain that Civic Forum gets kid-glove treatment in the local news media, where its supporters are prominent. Said Jiri Horak, chairman of the Social Democratic Party: “We are all equal, but in this respect Civic Forum is more equal than others.”

The outcome of the election will almost certainly not affect Havel’s political position. After first saying that he would serve as president for just a few months, he recently agreed to stay on for two more years. Leaders of all of Czechoslovakia’s major political groups have said that they will support him, and he is expected to be confirmed in office by the new Federal Assembly. That body will also have the difficult task of drawing up a new constitution and approving a course of economic reform that will inevitably raise prices and throw thousands of Czechoslovaks out of work. Indeed, food prices are already set to rise by an average of 24 per cent in July—the biggest jump since 1953. With such difficult issues ahead, it appears likely that Czechoslovakia’s calm election campaign will soon be followed by far stormier times.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Prague