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Czech Voters to Refit Free-Market Engine

As Czechs head to the polls today and tomorrow for the third time since the collapse of communism here, many are ready for their leader to shift priorities from gung-ho capitalist shock therapy to shoring up their nation's social safety net.

This doesn't mean they'll vote former Communists into power, as the Poles and Hungarians have done. The Czechs are front-runners in the race to join the EU and NATO. They enjoy large foreign currency reserves, a convertible currency, low unemployment, and manageable inflation.

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All this is an impressive progress report for Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, chairman of the ruling, right-of-center Civic Democratic Party (ODS). "This will be a referendum on the success or failure of economic reforms," predicts Jiri Pehe, director of research and analysis at the Open Media Research Institute.

Yet opinion polls also show that in the race to prosperity over the past four years of Mr. Klaus's premiership, many Czechs believe that his government has failed to address issues such as education, health care, and housing with new, creative planning.

Competing against the government's reformist image has been an uphill battle for the opposition Social Democrats, but there is enough dissent for them to attract 22 percent support in the final poll before the vote.

The Social Democrats have managed to strike a chord with those who consider the pace of economic reform too fast and the amount of government aid too little. They argue that education and drastic improvements in public health care should become a priority of the state. Teachers and public health-care workers salaries are currently at or below the national monthly average of about $400.

Perhaps the Social Democrats' main selling point is their commitment to provide state-subsidized housing for young couples and allowing pensioners to stay in their homes, even if the building is returned to the pre-Communist era owner.

All the same, when it comes time to pull the lever and choose a prime minister, analysts think they will choose Klaus over Social Democrat leader Milos Zeman.

Mr. Zeman has proven unpredictable and controversial, an image that has led to almost equal positive and negative ratings in opinion polls.

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"Some people who would otherwise vote for the Social Democrats will have to ask themselves, 'Do I want Milos Zeman as the next prime minister?' I think they'll vote for Klaus because he has turned this country around and his economic experiment has worked," says Mr. Pehe.

The ODS currently leads in polls with 28 percent support and looks likely to be reelected for another term. Czechs "will excuse [Klaus] for not addressing these social issues, thinking he has four more years to rectify these things," Pehe explains.

Daniel Kummermann, a Czech journalist and former dissident, thinks Klaus also will benefit from continued backlash against Communism. "Even if someone's not doing well [financially] ... they'll vote right-wing anyway" because the economy was worse under Communism.

In response to the Social Democrats' improving position in the polls, Klaus recently promised to focus more on these issues in the next four years. "The current government has been extremely successful in conducting large-scale reforms on a historical canvas. Whether they're good at fine-tuning is a different question... [If reelected] they will have to focus on social issues," Pehe says.

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