Christian Democrats pin their hopes on Jiri Cunek

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK

The Christian Democratic Party has a new leader. He is the controversial mayor of Vsetin, Senator Jiri Cunek - a man whom some see as a racist and others as a pragmatic, down to earth politician who could bring the Christian Democrats out of a rut. But who is Jiri Cunek and can he really turn around the party's fortunes?

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
"The Christian Democratic Party needs new blood, it needs reforms and trustworthy politicians" - those were the arguments with which Jiri Cunek beat his rivals, winning hands down and getting almost two thirds of the votes. Mr. Cunek promised action and demanded a team of deputy chairmen whom he could trust. In all but one case - he got them. Battered by a drawn out identity crisis, the Christian Democrats have put their trust in one man - a man who claims he is afraid of nothing, least of all unpopular measures. His decision to evict hundreds of Roma rent defaulters from the centre of Vsetin was a risk that paid off. Mr. Cunek rode the crest of that wave to become a senator and now - party leader. Many Christian Democrats are hoping that they can ride the crest of the wave with him. But will this action not backfire on the party, which is divided over Mr. Cunek's election? Political analyst Petr Just :

"Not only the party is split on this issue - and his behaviour - the public is as well. There is quite a big group of people who support Mr. Cunek and approve of his behaviour. They see a politician who can solve the problem in a direct manner, a rough manner, who doesn't fear that he could be accused of racism and when he is accused of racism he just goes ahead and solves the problem anyway. Now the Czechs are quite critical with regard to the Roma minority and this could bring the Christian Democrats more supporters. On the other hand, it could also mean a withdrawal of voter support from people who are not happy with the way Mr. Cunek resolved the situation in Vsetin."

Although he was tough and decisive on the matter of rent-defaulters in Vsetin, Jiri Cunek knows that national-level politics require kid gloves. He thinks abortion is murder, but he would not support a law banning it because he is aware that the public would not approve. He accepts the fact that homosexuals can now enter into civil partnerships but he would not give them further rights, such as allowing them to adopt children. He thinks the party should not maintain a tough line against the Communists, but he is sorry they were not banned immediately after the revolution.

How then will he approach the talks on forming a new government? At the weekend party conference Mr. Cunek said he would support a broad coalition government with a long-term mandate.

"My preference is for a three or four party coalition which would serve a full term in office so that it can implement all the necessary reforms which this country badly needs."

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
But only a few hours later in an interview for Czech Radio he said that under certain circumstances he would be prepared to support early elections. These swings are fairly typical of the Christian Democrats who - although they are only the fourth strongest party on the scene - have often had a decisive role in coalition talks. Political analyst Petr Just says that the party is now paying the price of being king-maker at any cost and that Mr. Cunek needs to state very clearly where he stands.

"I think that Mr. Cunek is playing it both ways - both with the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats. And I think that his party could come under fresh criticism for it - that they are a party that doesn't know where it stands and leans right or left depending on where they think they could gain the most profit. I think that the party now needs to make a clear statement about where it is, what it wants, where it wants to go and who it supports. And if they are able to get this clear message to the public it could help them to win public support and public approval. "