Civic Democratic leader Mirek Topolánek triumphs over eurosceptic rival

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek was re-elected chairman of the ruling Civic Democrats at a crucial party conference over the weekend, defeating a eurosceptic faction within the party that pushed for a change of direction. He beat challenger Pavel Bém whose influential supporter, Czech President Václav Klaus, quit as the party’s honorary chairman.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
“Blue again. The right way”. The motto chosen for the Civic Democrats’ conference suggested the senior ruling party must recover from its painful defeat in the recent regional and Senate elections, and regain public trust. Some inside the party believed that it was time for change, and supported the challenger, Prague Mayor Pavel Bém. Others opted for continuity ahead of the country’s upcoming EU presidency and backed the current leader, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. The moment of truth came on Sunday morning after all of the five hundred or so party delegates cast their votes.

Mirek Topolánek received 284 ballots, beating his opponent Pavel Bém by 122 votes. Member of the European Parliament for the Civic Democrats Jan Zahradil says that this time, the need for stability outweighed the need for change.

Pavel Bém,  photo: CTK
“I think that party members preferred stability to change. On the other hand, I think that his challenger, Mr Bém, received a substantial number of votes and he is not out of politics and I think that his future in the party is still open. The clear victory of Mr Topolánek however means that he got a mandate to pursue the reform cause initiated by his government. He will also run the government during the Czech EU presidency which I consider good news.”

David Vodrážka and Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
For the prime minister, the congress was a major victory. He managed to dissuade the conference from passing a resolution that would bind Civic Democrat lawmakers to vote against the adoption of the Lisbon treaty. And sweetening his victory further, delegates elected what was described as a dream-team to the party leadership, with Mr Topolánek’s supporters as deputy chairmen. The only close race was for the post of first deputy. After two inconclusive rounds, Interior Minister Ivan Langer withdrew his candidacy, clearing the way for the only new face in the party’s management, David Vodrážka. I asked Mr Langer if his withdrawal, after which he was elected as one of the party’s four regular deputies, was meant to bridge the troubled waters between the two party factions.

“I hope so; that’s why I did what I did. I think that we have to present our ability to find a compromise inside the Civic Democrats to be stronger than before, and I hope that we will reach that goal.”

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
In a move that seemed to predetermine Mr Topolánek’s hand’s down victory, President Klaus, the party’s founder and honorary chairman unexpectedly severed ties with the Civic Democrats on Saturday announcing that he was giving up the post of honorary chairman due to ideological differences. Known for his euro-sceptic views, Mr. Klaus would have liked to see a change of direction under Pavel Bém. When he told the assembly that he was giving up his honorary chairmanship, many couldn’t believe that the founding father was leaving.

Mr Topolánek’s way seems to be clear, but despite his easy victory political analysts say his problems are far from over. His critics from the eurosceptic faction within the party will continue to make his life difficult and some could even decide to leave the party’s deputies group in Parliament, further weakening the governing coalition which now has a mere 96 votes in the 200 member lower house. MEP Jan Zahradil says that on many issues the government could find its hands tied.

“Another question is what will happen in the Chamber of Deputies where, as everybody knows, the government is gradually losing the majority. It will probably be very hard, if not impossible, to pass any further bold reforms. But we will see in the coming days.”