Can fresh faces save Civic Democrats?

Petr Fiala, photo: CTK

The Civic Democrats elected a new leadership at a congress over the weekend, with academic Petr Fiala becoming chairman. Many members see his election as offering new hope for the party, once a driving force of post-communist transformation but today plagued by clientelism and corruption. However, critics say it may well take more than fresh faces at the helm for the Civic Democrats to win back the credit they have lost in recent years.

Petr Fiala,  photo: CTK
Petr Fiala, a 49-year-old professor of political science and former university rector and education minister, won 80 percent of the vote at the Civic Democrats congress on Saturday after promising delegates a new beginning for the party.

Petr Fiala only actually joined the Civic Democrats in November. For some, his swift accession shows the party rank and file’s urgent desire for change.

The brainchild of Václav Klaus and formerly the country’s dominant centre-right force, the Civic Democrats have in recent years become a symbol of political corruption. Indeed, many have denounced them as a clientelist network providing easy access to public funding.

In June, a Civic Democrat-led government collapsed amidst a scandal involving then prime minister and party chair Petr Nečas. In October’s general election, the Civic Democrats got 7.7 percent of the vote, the worst result since its foundation in 1991.

Jan Zahradil,  photo: CTK
The congress also chose five new deputy chairs, four of whom have never held top posts in party. The exception is MEP Jan Zahradil, who was elected party number two.

“The new leadership is made up of very trustworthy people who have credit and good reputation. After our heavy defeat in the last election, we have to do our best to restore the public’s trust and faith in our policies, and try and persuade them once again to give us the strength to assume executive responsibility in this country.”

Jan Zahradil, one of the faces of the Civic Democrats since the 1990s, says they need to rebuild their reputation as a strong opposition party. That, along with their new leadership and a reform of internal structures, should spark a comeback, he says.

But others, such as political analyst Jiří Pehe, believe the Civic Democrats will need much more than fresh leaders to remain a relevant force in Czech politics.

“It will be very difficult for them to return as a strong and credible party to the Czech political mainstream because there are too many non-transparent interests in the background and various lobbyists and other people are still connected to the party.

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“Above all, I think the party has created an image of itself that no matter how many new faces it puts in its leadership will stay with it for some time.”

The Civic Democrats hope the tide will turn this year. However, May’s European elections may come too soon and party leaders are targeting Senate and local elections in October as a genuine opportunity for a comeback.