Guess who's coming to dinner? Zeman, Grebenicek talk business

Last night the leader of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, Miroslav Grebenicek, had dinner with the head of the ruling Social Democrats, Milos Zeman. The dinner, at the Prime Minister's residence in Prague, went on late into the night. And as Rob Cameron reports, the menu wasn't to everyone's tastes:

In 1995, the leader of the then-opposition Social Democrats, Milos Zeman, addressed delegates to the party's national conference in the North Moravian town of Bohumin. In the six years since the overthrow of Communism, Mr Zeman had built up the Social Democrats into a modern centre-left party, an attractive alternative to the largely unreformed Communists and a constant thorn in the side of the centre-right government of Vaclav Klaus. And so Mr Zeman was confident in announcing to delegates that the Social Democrats would not work with the Communist Party, still heavily tainted with the crimes of the old regime.

In 1998, the Social Democrats won early elections, but fell well short of a majority in Parliament. Again the Communists were left out in the cold: the political stalemate was finally broken by the formation of a minority government, kept afloat by a power-sharing pact with Mr Klaus's Civic Democrats. Mr Zeman himself described the cabinet as 'suicidal'; many commentators agreed with him, predicting that Social Democrat voters would desert the party in droves. The government has actually done rather well, but it seems the commentators were right. On Sunday the chickens came home to roost.

Czechs went to the polls on Sunday, re-electing a third of the Senate as well as members of 13 brand new regional parliaments. The elections were marked by low turnout, so the results perhaps shouldn't be overestimated. But for the Social Democrats it was a catastrophe--for the Communists, a triumph. The ruling party failed to win in any of the new regions, pushed into third and often fourth place by Klaus's Civic Democrats, the smaller right-of-centre opposition, and the Communist Party. The Communists even came first in one region: North Bohemia's Usti nad Labem. Usti was previously safe Social Democrat territory.

So last night Mr Zeman invited Communist leader Miroslav Grebenicek to a 'working dinner.' The two men met late into the evening to discuss the formation of coalitions in regions where the two parties hold a majority. "Mr Zeman certainly wasn't radiating the same optimism as in 1998," Mr Grebenicek told reporters after the meeting, barely concealing his pleasure.

Mr Zeman insists the Bohumin resolution excluding co-operation with the Communists only applies to national politics. Indeed, Communists and Social Democrats already work together in town and village councils across the country. But many observers say the fallout from Communist-Social Democrat regional coalitions will finish off the Social Democrats. Mr Zeman's 'suicide cabinet' prophesy seems more accurate now than ever.

Authors: Rob Cameron , Pavla Navrátilová , Lucie Krupičková
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