Prime Minister Topolánek: a sigh of relief or more trouble ahead?

Photo: CTK

This weekend saw the Czech Prime Minister breathing a notable sigh of relief as he managed to stave of a challenge to his leadership at the Civic Democrat party conference, held in Prague’s Vysočany. But the troubles do not end there for the embattled PM: a fractured party, a disgruntled electorate and a deep ideological split - those are just some of the issues that Mirek Toplánek must face in the months ahead. I spoke with political commentator Jiří Pehe to gauge his reaction to the weekend’s events and began by asking him if the results of the conference could be viewed as a resounding victory for Mirek Topolanek:

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
“Well, I think that it is a victory for Topolánek, but I wouldn’t call it a resounding victory, simply because the congress didn’t manage to solve any of the major problems facing the Civic Democratic Party. It is still a party that is split internally and the wing representing Topolánek’s opponents remains very strong and will continue to cause trouble for him. Although the most frequently used word at the congress was ‘change’ nothing has really changed.”

And the only challenger Pavel Bém received only 162 votes to Mr Topolánek’s 284 – was that a surprisingly small amount of support for Mr Bém?

“Mr Bém didn’t really do a very good job of both before and during the congress; his vision for the Civic Democratic Party wasn’t clear, and I also think that many people in the party simply didn’t want to rock the boat ahead of the Czech EU presidency. But at the same time, although Bém didn’t do well, his wing in the party and the people who represent the pro-Klaus forces didn’t appear to be significantly weakened and that means that Mr Topolánek will continue to face problems.”

And speaking of the Czech president, he announced his departure as the honorary head of the party at this conference, so what exactly does that mean for the Civic Democrats? There will surely be some people who are glad to see the back of him; while others will lament that he has gone.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
“I think that Mr Klaus’ resignation from the post of honorary chairman of the party is on the one hand a significant gesture, but it is not a blow to the party because Klaus had in fact severed his ties with the Civic Democrats even before the congress, and he has certainly been a long-time opponent of Mirek Topolánek, so this was nothing new. But what is new is that now President Klaus has freed his hands to declare open war on the government of Mirek Topolánek, so in the next few months we should really expect an open conflict between the government and President Klaus and the president will certainly do his best to make life difficult for Mr Topolánek and his government.”

What in your view must Mr Topolánek do in order to strengthen his position? Some people are suggesting a gesture like getting rid of the controversial Health Minister Tomáš Julínek.

“Mr Topolánek can certainly make cosmetic changes in his government, but I am afraid that at this point, he cannot do that much. Because no matter how many people in the government will be replaced, in the end, this government will not be able to do anything significant. At this point, it is basically a minority government, and it will not be able to push any significant reforms through parliament. I am afraid that in the long run, Mr Topolánek and his government are doomed and the Social Democratic party is bound to win the next election in a resounding way.”