Christian Democrats elect new leader in revival bid

Pavel Bělobrádek, photo: CTK

One of the oldest Czech political parties, the Christian Democrats, is undergoing a radical makeover. After taking severe beating in this year’s local and general elections, they picked a little known figure as their new leader at a party conference over the weekend. They hope that the 33-year-old Pavel Bělobrádek, along with a new party leadership, will reverse waning support for the party, and lead the Christian Democrats back to the political mainstream.

Pavel Bělobrádek,  photo: CTK
Before the Christian Democrats’ weekend conference, few had heard of the 33-year-old vet Pavel Bělobrádek. But the native of the eastern town of Náchod, who until now worked as a party secretary in eastern Bohemia, won Saturday’s vote by a mile.

The Christian Democrats, who this year failed to win seats in the lower house of Parliament for the first time since 1919, hope Mr Bělobrádek will succeed in getting them back on the political map. The new Christian Democrat leader says they need to be much clearer on their goals and how to reach them.

“We have to say what we want. I’m afraid that for a long time, we haven’t been able to do that. First of all, we are a centre-right party with a strong social accent. That means we are a party for hard-working people, and for those who cannot work hard. But we cannot offer anything to people who do not want to work.”

For the Christian Democrats, 2010 has been a true annus horribilis. They won two more seats in the Czech Senate, where there are now five Christian Democrat senators, but that’s where the good news ended. For the first time in more than 90 years, they failed to cross the five-percent threshold needed to enter the lower house.

Former Christian Democrats’ leader Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
The Christian Democrats also took a blow in October’s local elections. Given an aging member-base and support fading even in the traditional Christian Democrat constituencies in Moravia, the party could soon find itself marginalized.

“I think our problem was that we had very bad communication and political marketing. So I think our programme and our ideas are sound but we have to change the way we communicate, and change the way we talk to the people. It’s a problem of clearly defining our politics. That’s our main problem, and that’s what we have to change.”

After Saturday’s vote, some commentators labelled Mr Bělobrádek a populist; he told the conference he had seen many swines in his job, and that he’d handle them in politics as well. The media also pointed to his 2007 blog entry in which he presented himself a fan of the notorious 1990s Czech skinhead band, Orlík.

Mr Bělobrádek also suggested the party move more to the right of centre, as opposed to its traditional role of a welcome partner in any coalition government, left of right.

Commentator Jiří Pehe believes it’s the right-wing inclination of the new Christian Democrat chair that might push the party into oblivion.

“I think that by stating that the party should be right-of-centre, he is undermining the party’s chances for success. We have two large parties on the right, the Civic Democrats and TOP 09, and I don’t really think there is space for a new party, or an old party that’s now trying to come back. So I think this may be counter-productive, and it would be more useful for the party to define itself in centrist, rather than left or right, terms.”

The next elections will take place in 2012, when a third of the Czech Senate will be chosen at the polls. That gives Mr Bělobrádek enough time to revive the Christian Democrats and re-shape both the party’s policies and its strategy.