Filip takes over as Communist Party leader

Vojtech Filip, photo: CTK

Over the last 12 years few politicians have attracted more controversy than the Communist Party's Miroslav Grebenicek. Every May 1st as party leader it was his rhetoric that whipped up angry crowds of mainly older Communist sympathisers on Prague's Letna Plain. No more. At the weekend - nine months ahead of parliamentary elections - Mr Grebenicek stepped down, apparently in order to help his party attract new support. The new man at the top is 50-year-old Vojtech Filip, long styled as Grebenicek's successor. Is there any major difference?

Face to face:Vojtech Filip and Miroslav Grebenicek,  photo: CTK
Vojtech Filip and Miroslav Grebenicek: two well-known faces of the Communist Party, one tough, the other tougher. For many observers, the two men are cut from the same cloth. Where Mr Filip does enjoy an advantage is in his somewhat milder features and a somewhat milder reputation, a difference in degree that could make him an asset for the Communists in elections next year. Jaromir Kohlicek is a Communist euro MP:

"I think it was a logical development. Elections will take place next year. All the parties, including the Communist Party, are a little bit 'moving' and have to establish who will be the leader for elections, and who will be acceptable for voters next year. For delegates of the party it is Vojtech Filip."

While Jaromir Kohlicek didn't mention him by name he did suggest 'someone' - in other words Mr Grebenicek - had become something of a burden.

"During the last two or three years someone somehow spoiled the 'image' of the party, which would like to accept new realities, and would like to shift the interests of society to social affairs."

But, critics charge that any change at the top is only cosmetic at best for a party that until now has never fully distanced itself from the Communist Party of the old regime. The Communists are unapologetic, with Mr Filip himself saying there would be no shift in the party's stance: anti-NATO, tough on the EU. In many ways, for now, he's behaving like Mr Grebenicek himself.

Political analyst Rudolf Kucera thinks as long as the Communists enjoy relatively high support as the third strongest party in Parliament, there will never be real incentive for change.

"They are in a position today where they could influence a future government. There's no reason for them now to make an apology. Consider that till now they haven't confronted their own past and that strategy has worked: their popularity has risen. "

Vojtech Filip,  photo: CTK
The choice of Filip is tactically clever: according to Rudolf Kucera the new chairman could open more doors that for Grebenicek remained closed, namely closer co-operation with the ruling Social Democrats. Should the Social Democrats gain re-election next June, a "friendlier" Communist Party could be a benefit to both.

"Mr Filip is far more communicative than Mr Grebenicek, who was very Stalinist, and he is more experienced at the negotiating table. While he shares many of the views of his predecessor, he is used to communicating between parties in Parliament, all of which could make him more approachable."

Currently, the Communists are riding at around 13 percent in some public opinion polls, a marked drop since earlier in the year when some polls showed them at 25 percent, well ahead of the ruling Social Democrats. It could be they've already peaked, while the Social Democrats have recovered, with the help of their new face - Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek. By changing their own leader, the Communists are hoping to do the same.