Prime Minister tells the Christian Democrats to play ball or leave the Cabinet

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

Although general elections in the Czech Republic are eight months away, this weekend marked the beginning of what commentators predict will be a tough election campaign. The impulse came from the ruling Social Democratic Party which held a meeting of its leadership over the weekend.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
First came the news that the ruling Social Democrats' chairman Stanislav Gross was resigning in order to help the party's prospects ahead of the elections. Then Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek unexpectedly went on the offensive, criticizing the opposition, the president and most of all his coalition partners, the Christian Democrats whom he accused of playing ball with the opposition right wing Civic Democratic Party. Taking a leaf out of the book of his close personal friend Gerhard Schroeder, the Czech Prime Minister took the bull by the horns and said he was ready for early elections if the Civic Democrats and the Christian Democratic Party wanted to initiate them. He also made it clear that he would cooperate with the Communists if necessary to push through key laws and reforms. So was the Prime Minister bluffing about early elections? The opposition Civic Democrats, who immediately called his bluff, believe so. But more importantly -was he bluffing about closer cooperation with the Communists? Commentators think not entirely so. Political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova says the Prime Minister needed to bolster his party's position and show that it need not depend exclusively on the goodwill of centre-right parties.

"Cooperation with the communists would enable the Social Democrats to overcome their isolation. They cannot govern by themselves and Communist support for a future minority cabinet could give them more manoeuvring space. It would mean that they could form a coalition without the Christian Democrats and there is now a strong aversion to the Christian Democrats within the Social Democratic Party, partly because of their blackmailing tactics."

Civic Democrats - Chairman Mirek Topolanek in front,  photo: CTK
So, is the Prime Minister's battle cry a serious warning to the "unreliable" Christian Democrats or is it an important message to voters about a pending shift to the left? If the latter is the case, the Prime Minister may be taking a big risk. He would no longer be at the mercy of the Christian Democrats - but how much would close association with the communists cost his party in terms of voter support? Vladimira Dvorakova again:

"Well, I think they stand to gain some support by this move, on the other hand they may also lose some potential voters. It is hard to say in the long run whether it will serve the party's interests or damage them."

Despite the heavy-handed rhetoric we heard from both sides, few commentators actually think that the past weekend has brought early elections in the Czech Republic closer. But many are now speaking of a polarization of forces on the Czech political scene - which may not after all be such a bad thing in a country where political frontiers tend to be blurred.