Czech parties struggle to find roles for former leaders

Jiří Paroubek

The former leader of the Czech Social Democrats Jiří Paroubek has announced plans to leave the party and establish a new political group. Should his intentions materialize, he would be the second Social Democrat leader to do so, after Miloš Zeman whose own political project caused significant harm to the Social Democrats in the last general elections. But in Czech politics, problems with former party leaders are not unusual.

Jiří Paroubek
Jiří Paroubek, who was Social Democrat party leader between 2006 and 2010, and Czech prime minister for a year and a half, on Wednesday announced plans to form a new party which he said could be officially launched in the autumn.

Mr Paroubek later backtracked a little and refused to reveal any further details of his plan, which led some to believe his announcement was little more than a publicity stunt to bring attention to his new book which he was launching that day.

However, the former Social Democrat leader has made no attempt to hide his resentment towards the party leadership ever since he was ousted as chairman following the party’s bitter victory in the 2010 general elections. Despite winning the most votes, the Social Democrats were unable to form a government coalition and had to make do with the back benches.

Jan Hamáček
Whether or not Mr Paroubek’s plans are serious, his announcement on Wednesday sent shivers down the spines of many party members. Jan Hamáček is a senior Social Democrat MP.

“Frankly speaking, I hope he will change his mind or deny this information. I don’t see any reason for him to leave the party because the party has not changed its programme, we haven’t done anything to shift the position of the Social Democratic Party. So I simply don’t see a reason for him to leave.”

The Social Democrats have good reason to worry. All recent opinion polls put the party far ahead of its rivals, but a new political entity relying on a nearly identical voter base could eat away a significant amount of votes – just like in the 2010 elections. There, the Social Democrats lost over 4 percent of the vote that went to a party founded by Miloš Zeman, the charismatic Social Democrat leader throughout most of the 1990s who also failed to come to terms with his demise as party head. Political analyst Vít Hloušek says such hard feelings are not unusual in an era of very personalized party politics.

Vít Hloušek
“Hurt ego definitely plays a role in what Jiří Paroubek is doing now and what Miloš Zeman did ten years ago. These politicians were extremely successful; they won important victories for the Social Democrats and felt to be not only party leaders but leaders of the whole Czech political scene. It’s very hard for them to be in a situation when they are losing their political influence.”

In the Czech Republic, issues with former leaders are not unique to the Social Democrats. The senior right-of-centre party, the Civic Democrats, had their founding father Václav Klaus elected president – but many later questioned the move, as Mr Klaus never really stopped meddling in party affairs, and even played a part in the ousting of his successor at the party helm, Mirek Topolánek.

The only instance of a relatively damage-free demise of a former party leader and prime minister remains the case of Vladimír Špidla who went on to become a European commissioner after he quit his posts in 2004. Social Democrat MP Jan Hamáček says Czech politicians yet have to learn how to make a graceful exit.

“Over here, we haven’t developed a system of how to deal with former prime ministers and party leaders. In western democracies, they know how to handle this, and I think it’s something we should think about and we should find a system in which we could use the experience of people who led the country.”