Social Democrat regional branches back Gross's leadership

The Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross has strengthened his position as leader of his Social Democrats ahead of a party congress in March, raising his chances of remaining head of government into 2006. Two regional party chapters backed Mr Gross's leadership at the weekend and another delivered a no preference vote between Mr Gross and his leftist rival, Deputy Prime Minister Zdenek Skromach, who will challenge the incumbent at the congress. Mr Gross's victory would keep in place the Social Democrats' cabinet with two centre-right partners, the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union, before the spring 2006 general election. Stanislav Gross took over from Vladimir Spidla as party chief and prime minister in June after the Social Democrats' poor showing in the European Parliament election, but has so far failed to revive the party's fortunes.