Party's over for 4K

ODA leader Michael Zantovsky, photo CTK

When four right-of-centre opposition parties joined forces in September 1998, it was with high hopes and a common goal - to break the stranglehold on power enjoyed by the ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democrats, and offer disillusioned Czech voters a clear alternative. On Thursday, just one day after the president announced the date of the next parliamentary elections, it disintegrated - in spectacular fashion - with its leaders openly accusing each other of betrayal. Rob Cameron mourns the passing of the Four-Party Coalition.

ODA leader Michael Zantovsky, photo CTK
For three years the star of the Four-Party Coalition rose steadily in the political heavens, hovering at around 30 percent in the opinion polls. Last year, however, things began to go wrong. Leaders of the two main parties - the Freedom Union and the Christian Democrats - started bickering in public over who was to lead the bloc to victory in the elections. Then in October the Four shrank to Three, as the minor Democratic Union was forced to merge with the Freedom Union. And finally - to cap it all - came revelations that the tiny Civic Democrat Alliance, the ODA, owed almost 70 million crowns to an insurance company, and seemed incapable of producing a credible plan to pay it back.

On Thursday, the Christian Democrats - which had threatened to expel the ODA unless it cleaned up its act - finally lost its patience, announcing that it would contest this year's elections with the Freedom Union-DEU alone. The ODA leader, Michael Zantovsky, was furious. On Friday he announced that the Four-Party Coalition was effectively dead:

"The Four-Party Coalition is history. I repeat - the Four-Party Coalition was founded on agreements signed between the four parties, and those agreements have been violated by the Christian Democrat resolution. Because those agreements were violated, the Four-Party Coalition no longer exists."

But it did it really have to end this way? Was the Four-Party Coalition - a mixed bag of parties with different ideologies and strong personalities - doomed to failure from the start? Vaclav Zak is the editor-in-chief of the political bi-monthly, Listy.

"I don't think so. I think there was a political reason why the Four-Party Coalition was put together, and it was the so-called Opposition Agreement [between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats]. Now the Opposition Agreement is coming to an end, now we are approaching the election, and the original reason why the Four-Party Coalition was bound together is slowly disappearing. They had a common enemy, and of course they would also have problems with a common programme. But this particular case [the ODA dispute] was caused by the past: you can't play the "the rule of law" card and the "decent entrepreneurship" card, when you have such a party as your partner."

M. Zantovsky and O. Kuzilek, photo CTK
In less than five months' time we go to the polls, there's a general election in this country. The Freedom Union and the Christian Democrats will still be fighting the election together - not as the Four-Party Coalition, but as a coalition of sorts. What chances do they have now?

"Well, if the public will understand their dealing with the ODA as an attempt to be consistent, when they say they want to make honest politics so they had to solve the problems of the ODA, that could in fact convince people that they are taking their promises in earnest. And that they are the only party in this country which is really doing so."

Commentator Vaclav Zak, ending that report on the end of the line for the opposition Four-Party Coalition.