MP's defection could shift balance of power in the lower house

Michal Pohanka, photo: CTK

Just days after taking a beating in the Senate and local elections, the Social Democratic Party has sustained another bad blow. Deputy Michal Pohanka on Wednesday unexpectedly announced his decision to leave party ranks and to withdraw from the Social Democrat deputies' group in the lower house. His defection could mark a shift in the balance of power in the lower chamber which has been deadlocked since June's inconclusive general elections.

Michal Pohanka,  photo: CTK
Michal Pohanka's decision could not have been broadcast in a more dramatic manner. He informed his party about it in writing and went into hiding - communicating with only a handful of selected journalists. He told an internet daily that he had resigned under severe pressure from the chair of the Social Democrats deputies' group Michal Hasek after a news report linked his name to former government official Zdenek Dolezel who is charged with fraud. Pohanka, who claims to be innocent of any wrongdoing, said that the atmosphere in his party reminded him of the communist 1950s and that he was asking for police protection because "strange things were happening around him". Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek was poker faced and the deputy group's chairman Michal Hasek, who was accused of forcing Pohanka's hand, denied that he'd exerted any pressure on his party colleague:

"I most certainly did not pressure my colleague Pohanka into resigning. As for the idea that I act like a communist hardliner from the 50s -well, the very idea makes my party colleagues smile."

Pohanka remains in hiding and the Social Democrats are hectically trying to locate him - in order to have a proper talk with him "face to face".

Meanwhile, the centre-right Civic Democrats are clearly pleased with this latest development. It has weakened the position of their rival and brought early elections a big step closer. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek made no secret of the fact that Michal Pohanka's decision had made the way to early elections easier.

"We will certainly do our best to pave the way to early elections without any major shake-ups for the country. Basically our position has not changed. We are still pressing for early elections in 2007. What has changed is that the Social Democrats no longer have 100 votes to lean on."

For the present time Michal Pohanka is keeping his own council as regards how he will use his crucial vote. But the fact that he is no longer a member of the Social Democratic Party means that the left faction in Parliament is now weaker than the right and that is a signal which President Klaus is not likely to miss when choosing the next prime minister designate.