Elections to dominate political scene in 2002

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There is no question as to what will be the biggest events on the Czech political scene this year - the elections to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech parliament, early in the summer and the choosing of a successor to President Vaclav Havel later in the year. Ian Willoughby has more.

Opinion polls suggest that the opposition right-wing Four Party Coalition - which has been formed since the last general elections in 1998 - will get the most votes, followed by another right wing party, the Civic Democrats, and then the Social Democrats. The latter two parties are currently joined by the so-called opposition agreement, a power-sharing pact under which the Civic Democrats keep the minority Social Democrat government in power in exchange for key posts and a degree of influence in such matters as the budget.

Whichever party comes first in the elections, which are due to take place some time between mid-May and mid-June, will - in all probability - have to try to form a coalition. That's when it should really start to get interesting. It could be said that a straightforward Social Democrat-Civic Democrat coalition would be better than the "opposition agreement", which some say goes against the spirit of democracy. Then again, the "opposition agreement" could continue after the elections.

From the policy point of view the most logical coalition could well be between the right wing parties the Four Party Coalition and the Civic Democrats. Personalities however could make that one difficult - one of the main parties in the Four Party Coalition - the Freedom Union - was formed by breakaway Civic Democrats and it's hard to imagine them being able to work with their old leader, the Civic Democrats' Vaclav Klaus.

The fourth most popular party is the Communists, though the other parties all refuse to work with them. The Social Democrats are the closest to the Communists in their politics but they adopted a policy some years ago saying they would not deal with the Communists at the parliamentary level. That policy may some day be dropped, though it is unlikely to happen this year.

And the fact that the Communists are out in the cold makes coalition building even more difficult as the range of possible coalitions is smaller.

Another factor in the general elections will be voter apathy - or perhaps voter disgust with politicians. It's hard to imagine any country where the public love their elected representatives but most Czechs hate politicians with a passion. A low turnout would not be a surprise.

The other big event of the year in politics will be the choosing of a successor to President Vaclav Havel, whose second term as president of the Czech Republic ends a year from now. Under the Czech system the president is elected by parliament, so obviously the outcome of the general elections will have a huge influence on who succeeds Mr Havel. One potential successor to Mr Havel is the Civic Democrats' Vaclav Klaus, who is 61.

There is speculation that Mr Klaus could broker a coalition deal under which he would step down as party head in exchange for the post of president. Other names being bandied about are Senate chairman Petr Pithart from the Four Party Coalition, Roman Catholic priest Tomas Halik and even the current prime minister Milos Zeman.