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CZECH VOTE IMPERILS FREE-MARKET REFORMS

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The center-right coalition of Premier Vaclav Klaus narrowly lost its parliamentary majority, according to election results Sunday that called into question the direction and pace of free-market reforms.

In the balloting, the first since the Czech Republic split from Slovakia in 1993, voters did not follow the lead of some other former Soviet-bloc countries in returning ex-Communists to power.Klaus' three-party coalition won 99 of Parliament's 200 seats, down from 112 deputies in the outgoing legislature, according to unofficial results released by the election commission Sunday.

The election set the stage for political maneuvering and there were increasing signs that Klaus could try and form a minority government with some support in parliament from the main opposition Social Democratic Party.

The vote reflected an apparent desire to slow the quick pace of reform put forth by Klaus' Civic Democratic Party and its two coalition partners, the Christian Democrats and the Civic Democratic Alliance.

The center-left Social Democrats fared the best, winning 26.5 percent of the vote and boosting their parliamentary presence from 24 to 61 seats.

Many former Communists have joined the Social Democrats. But the party's leader, Milos Zeman, moved to dispel fears that he would turn back the clock on economic reform.

"This country needs democracy and a market economy," he said. "There is no way of going back."

The elections were seen as a crucial test of whether Czechs could continue reforming their economy while maintaining political stability.

That combination, espoused by Klaus, has made Czechs front-runners among East Europeans wanting to join the European Union and NATO.

Though weakened, Klaus' Civic Democratic Party, with 68 deputies, will remain a strong political force.