PM on the ropes following election debacle

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

After two years in power, dissenting voices in the Civic Democratic Party are growing, and Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek could now face his greatest political battle. The prime minister is trying to weather the storm after his party was defeated across the board in regional elections last weekend. Rivals the Social Democrats trounced the right-of-centre party; previously the Civic Democrats held 12 out of 13 regional assemblies – now the Social Democrats control them all. The Civic Democrats are also at risk of losing a majority in the Senate when Czechs go to polls again this weekend, raising still more questions over Mr Topolánek’s political future.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
So far Prime Minister Topolánek is putting a brave face on what, for his party, represents an election debacle, and he as well as others are saying that the immediate task ahead is not analysis of what went wrong, but focus, so that the Civic Democrats do better in the second round of Senate elections this weekend. But for Mr Topolánek the fires are growing and getting harder and harder to put out. He and a number of prominent members in the party – such as deputy party leader (as well as Prague mayor) Pavel Bém – have long been at odds and now calls for Mr Bém to run against the long-time leader at the party’s December congress are increasing.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
But Mr Topolánek may not even have that long: it is possible, pending the weekend results, pressure against him will mount even sooner. On Tuesday, he wasn’t helped by his former party leader, now president, Václav Klaus, who commented the election results for the first time. Mr Klaus stressed one thing was obvious: the voters’ desire for change. And, he made clear politicians who ignored the message did so at their peril.

Although he didn’t mention him by name, the president criticised Mr Topolánek when he suggested that regional Civic Democrat governors defeated in the election had paid an undeservedly high price. In other words, in his view it was the party leadership – and not the regional politicians – who were to blame for the Civic Democrats’ poor results. That in itself is perhaps not that surprising: it is well-known that over the years very little love has been lost between the two politicians. But what is less than fortunate for Mr Topolánek is the timing. It is common knowledge that Mr Klaus has long backed Pavel Bém, Mr Topolánek’s greatest potential rival and others, such as defeated central Bohemian governor Petr Bendl, have now said openly Mr Bém should challenge the prime minister for the post of party leader. Clearly, Mr Topolánek will have a fight on his hands.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
For now, the prime minister is urging voters to support the Civic Democrats this weekend to answer what he called the Social Democrats’ “left jab” with a “right hook”. If his push fails, it is likely to at the very least mean a cabinet reshuffle. It is a crucial moment for the government to be jittery, as the Czech Republic readies to take up the EU presidency. Before then, even more hurdles. The coalition government on Wednesday faces a vote of no-confidence, in which independent and so-called rebel MPs have refused to say how they will vote. The chances are slim, say analysts, but not impossible, that the coalition – or its leader at least – will not survive.