Are the PM’s days as Social Democratic Party leader numbered?

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: Khalil Baalbaki

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s post as leader of the Social Democratic Party is looking increasingly shaky, with speculation increasing he could be replaced before the autumn election. Mr Sobotka refused to comment so far, saying only that the party leadership would address current developments on Wednesday.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: Khalil Baalbaki
The Social Democrats fortunes have continued to flag and the party is arguably in overdrive to find any means to turn them around – one reason the top leadership is meeting in a day’s time. There has been speculation since the weekend that Prime Minister Sobotka’s days as party leader are numbered.

Not all agree that changing horses midstream would be great idea with only four months or so left before the election. Former South Bohemia governor Jiří Zimola, for example, told the Czech News Agency that the time for Mr Sobotka to step down as party leader was half a year ago – not now – making clear that if the current chairman was replaced it might not have the desired positive net effect.

In the interview, Mr Zimola, at odds with the PM politically, did allow that a new impulse could be beneficial. He discussed even the possibility of a kind of Social Democrat pre-election ‘triumvirate’ – with Mr Sobotka as PM, another figure as party leader and a third to run the party’s election campaign. The name floated most often as a possible replacement for Mr Sobotka is that of Milan Chovanec.

Jindřich Šídlo is head reporter for Seznam News; in his view the post could very well fall to the current interior minister.

“Milan Chovanec is the first deputy chairman so it would be logical for him to be offered the post. On the other hand, when the Civic Democrats side-lined their leader, Mirek Topolánek, they didn’t go to then-first deputy David Vodrážka …

“The Social Democrats could put forward Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek as leader. He rallied party members with the fieriest of speeches at the last party convention. But even more important than who leads, from the party perspective, might be pushing Mr Sobotka off the stage.”

Milan Chovanec, photo: Filip Jandourek
It is worth remembering that the replacement of Mirek Topolánek as chairman of the Civic Democrats back in 2010 when the party was a major force on the political right, paid off dividends for that party, with then leader Petr Nečas, then known as a ‘Mr Family Man’ eked out an unexpected second-place finish which was enough to form – and lead – the next government.

This time around, the Social Democrats are facing a tough opponent in ANO and former finance minister Andrej Babiš. The question is whether a similar move to replace the chairman by the Social Democrats would be enough for the party to recover lost voters before time is up. With voter preference polls putting ANO considerably ahead, some in the party worrying that even replacing Mr Sobotka now will be too little, too late.