Prime minister & opposition party leader face off in important debate

Йиржи Пароубек и Мирек Тополанек (Фото: ЧТК)

The Czech Republic is now days away from a general election that will decide on the country's next government: in all likelihood either by the Social Democratic Party, that has ruled for the last eight years, or their rivals - the right-of-centre Civic Democrats. The race is far from decided and even two final opinion polls have predicted opposite results: one giving the Social Democrats a slight edge, the other predicting a decisive Civic Democrat victory. Clearly, final televised debates between the parties' two leaders - Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and opposition leader Mirek Topolanek - could still have an impact.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek (left) and opposition leader Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
RP: Jan - how would you characterise the debate?

"First and foremost let's say that it was one of the few major opportunities to see Mirek Topolanek and Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek face to face at last. Not as common in recent months as one might have thought. In the last little while each has expressed a good deal of aversion to the other this campaign season and this was only the second time the two men met and squared off on issues like health care, the economy, and corruption. Obviously a debate like this can be very important for potential voters and at times neither man pulled his punches."

From the debate on Czech TV:

Jiri Paroubek: "Since the Battle of White Mountain there was never more stealing than under the Civic Democrats!"

Mirek Topolanek: "Mr Paroubek's offensive manner to me is just how he'll behave towards you if he wins the elections. That's important to know. "

RP: Is it taken as a given that one of these two men - either Mr Topolanek or Mr Paroubek - will be the next prime minister?

"Let's just say that it's extremely likely, certainly a motivation for Czech Television as well as other broadcasters later to present the two head-to-head and not alongside leaders of some of the smaller parties. That may be somewhat misleading, but perhaps not surprising. Political analyst Tomas Lebeda:"

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek (left) and opposition leader Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
"Such a debate format is used when one of two political leaders is largely expected to be the next prime minister. Here, there are two strong parties, one on the political Left and one on the Right, and most ideological battles are fought between the two. That doesn't mean that the elections are only about Mr Topolanek or Mr Paroubek, they aren't. The debate was useful in presenting either man potentially as prime minister and could have an impact on undecided voters gravitating between some of the smaller parties or the Civic or Social Democrats."

RP: How did Mr Paroubek and Mr Topolanek actually come across?

"Many analysts suggested that the two toned down angry rhetoric since the last time they faced. For the most part both probably made headway among some voters, on personal preference and different styles: Mr Paroubek generally goes on the offensive, although it has to be said that some consider his style too aggressive or even vulgar. Mr Topolanek, on the other hand, while trying to appear more statesman-like is generally considered not as effective a speaker - who sometimes fails to rein in personal emotions - there was his recent refusal to shake the prime minister's hand. Their personalities, says political scientist Lubomir Kopecek, to an extent have been echoed in their parties' campaigns."

Jiri Paroubek (left) and Mirek Topolanek in Czech Television, photo: CTK
"I think that the Social Democrats' campaign has been an aggressive and negative one. And, it's logical to a certain extent that its leader has to copy that. On the other hand, the Civic Democrats have tried to present themselves as more decent, and that was reflected somewhat even in the debate yesterday."

RP: Does that mean that either of the men on Sunday got the upper hand?

"That's difficult to say - we'll only really be able to tell after the elections or after two more debates in the next few days. Some have characterised Sunday's debate as win-win for both leaders. Both Mr Paroubek and Mr Topolanek showed their 'mettle', both traded barbs at arguably the right moments, and neither lost their nerve. The big questions - the issues - are perhaps now less of a factor many analysts lament. They themselves say that those often take a back seat as campaigns wrap up, giving way to slogans and emotions. Asked to characterise their plans in a final minute? Reponses by both were pretty generic: continued prosperity and well-being in the Czech Republic, and so on. Now it will be up to the voters to decide which party best guarantees those."