Clearing out the Political Elite in Eastern Europe Resignation of Czech Prime Minister Teaches Important Lesson in Building Civil Society

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Vaclav Klaus's resignation as prime minister of the Czech Republic last weekend signals the end of an era. And observers here say his departure can provide important lessons for the fledgling democracies of post-communist Europe.

Almost eight years to the day after Communist leaders resigned from power in what was then Czechoslovakia, Mr. Klaus announced on Nov. 30 that he and his government would step down due to persistent allegations in a campaign finance scandal that has spun out of control.

But while politicians here continue to haggle over the new government, observers and even the Czech president say what is more significant is the opportunity Czech society has to develop as a democracy. While governments have changed at least once in other post-communist European countries, the Czechs have kept essentially the same leaders since communism fell on Nov. 27, 1989. And with new elections certain to be called in the coming months, Czechs have a chance to truly assess new political ideas. A test of democracy In an address to the nation over the weekend, Czech President Vaclav Havel acknowledged that opportunity, saying the country faces one of its biggest tests as a democratic society. The changes the Czechs face are part of a political pendulum that swings between left and right in the region, says Vasil Hudak, director of the Prague center of the Institute of East-West Studies. Mr. Hudak says, "In the Czech Republic the situation has been atypical, because the pendulum has been at the right for so long." Klaus was part of the initial wave of post-communist reformers who rose to power following the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. As finance minister in the initial Czechoslovak government, he became the architect for what would be seen as a model for transforming a state-run economy to capitalism. In the summer of 1992, Klaus was elected prime minister, and helped oversee the peaceful dissolution of the country into the Czech and Slovak republics. That split actually served to stunt the Czechs' political evolution, says analyst Hudak. While voters across Central and Eastern Europe grew disenchanted with their initial post-communist leaders, the Czechs retained Klaus, in large part to seek stability for their new country. By 1995 Klaus, an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, proclaimed that privatization in the Czech Republic was essentially complete. …


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