Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek: who are the front-runners in the race for Czech Prime Minister?

Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

Polls have them running neck-and-neck days before the elections. Jiri Paroubek, the current Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party, and Mirek Topolanek, the leader of the opposition Civic Democratic Party. One of these two men is most likely to be the Czech Republic's next Prime Minister, but who are they and where did they come from? In this week's Talking Point we take a look at these two men and the images they project.

Jiri Paroubek and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
In this week's Tyden magazine, a profile of Paroubek and Topolanek tells us about the poetry and music they like: Paroubek can recite Macha's famous poem Maj, or May, while Topolanek knows the songs of Jaromir Nohavica by heart. As for where in the world each man would fear to live—Paroubek says that "maybe in one of the African countries," and Topolanek says he would fear living in any number of totalitarian regimes like Cuba or North Korea, because sooner or later they'd probably lock him up. So what else is there to know about them?

Mirek Topolanek was born in 1956, in the Moravian town of Vsetin, and graduated from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Brno University of Technology. In the 1980s he worked as a planning and project engineer at the Ostrava Coal and Mining Corporation, and in 1991 he went into private business and established a company called VAE Ltd., which focussed on projects dealing with the energy industry.

Politics became an active part of Topolanek's life in late 1989, when he became involved with the Civic Forum Movement. He joined the Civic Democratic Party back in 1994, and in 1996 Mirek Topolanek became a Senator. When his star began to really rise within the Civic Democratic Party in late 2004, political analyst Jan Urban had this to say about Topolanek:

"He definitely came to the leader's position within the Civic Democratic Party as a compromise solution. Until his arrival, the leadership position in that party was identified only along the lines of loyalty toward our present President, Vaclav Klaus, who was the founder of the party and the 'godfather' of its style. There was no personal chemistry working particularly well between Topolanek and Klaus, and that was the main reason why his chances were rated as being low. Nevertheless, Klaus became President and the party had to go on, and Topolanek slowly but steadily proved that he was able to create a compromise atmosphere that could fulfil the wishes of all different groups within the party, especially within the M.P.'s club. So Topolanek's quality rests mainly in the fact that he is able to wait patiently for the chances to come, and it is clear that his chances are rising and he is very probably our next Prime Minister."

Now Mirek Topolanek is days away from the polls that will decide whether Czechs want him as their next leader. The campaign has focussed much on personal style, and Jan Urban sees Topolanek's image as one of a man-in-the-street, who uses a short form of his given name:

Mirek Topolanek
"He refers to himself with a kind version of his formal name [Miroslav], as his mom would call him when he was a young boy. This is how he identifies himself as the man in the street. The same goes for his frequent singing of folk songs. He comes from a very colourful region in northern Moravia, famous for its folk songs and he likes to be photographed singing. He's definitely working on his image and he's doing it deliberately."

Topolanek's main rival, Jiri Paroubek, was born in Olomouc in 1952, and is also no stranger to Moravian folk songs. He studied economics and between 1976 and 1990 he worked as the main economist and then as the Director of the state-run company, Restaurace a Jidelny, or Restaurants and Cafeterias.

Where politics is concerned, Jiri Paroubek has more of a colourful past. Although his official campaign c.v. says nothing about political activity prior to 1989, Jiri Paroubek joined the so-called Czechoslovak Socialist Party in 1970 and became a member of its Central Committee in 1982. He left this communist-affiliated party in 1986, and now says this is a matter of the past not worth discussing. Yet, Paroubek recently had this to say about possible cooperation with the current Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia:

Jiri Paroubek
"If need be, we will pass the laws that are necessary for the prosperity of this country, for the people of this country, with the help of the Communists. And if Martians were to fall here, then I would pass the laws with their help."

Jiri Paroubek joined the Social Democratic Party that he now runs in 1990, and rose through its ranks to become the Minister for Regional Development in 2004. In April 2005 he was named Prime Minister and replaced his discredited predecessor, Stanislav Gross. Jiri Paroubek has run a campaign based on promises of "certainty and prosperity," and although he has already sat in the seat of Prime Minister, his image is about to be tested at the polls for the first time.

So as polling day draws close, we went to the streets and asked people who they would prefer as the next Czech Prime Minister—Jiri Paroubek or Mirek Topolanek?