Social Democrats' conference a success?

Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTK

Well, it's certain, the Czech prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, remains leader of the senior party in the ruling coalition, the Social Democrats. At the party's three-day annual conference, the old party leadership was re-elected, with Mr Spidla at the head and his close colleague Stanislav Gross at his side as First Deputy-Chairman. So, the conference reinforced the prime minister's battered authority, but what about the political future of Mr Spidla, his government and his party? That's what we'll be looking at in today's Talking Point.

Vladimir Spidla, photo: CTK
Ever since the parliamentary elections in June last year, the coalition government has been fragile. With a precarious one-seat majority in the 200-seat House of Deputies, the ruling coalition of the Social Democrats and the smaller Freedom Union and Christian Democrats has to be unanimous in order to push through important votes. However, turmoil within the parties, most recently in Mr Spidla's Social Democrats themselves, has called the coalition's future into question. The most spectacular recent example was the presidential election.

Deep divisions emerged within the Social Democratic Party when its deputies and senators failed to find a presidential candidate acceptable to all. While one wing of the party is loyal to current leader Vladimir Spidla, another wing supports the former leader Milos Zeman, who ran for president in the second round but failed to get sufficient votes from the pro-Spidla faction. This triggered rebellion behind the scenes: Mr Zeman's supporters were, in all probability, instrumental in getting the opposition candidate, Vaclav Klaus, elected.

Vladimira Dvorakova is from the politics department of the Prague School of Economics and explains why there are still dissidents within the party who do not support their leader:

"Because the coalition is a centrist coalition, he is criticised that his politics is not social democratic enough. Another question that somehow can be connected, although it is not connected with ideology, is the economic interests and influences that were extremely strong during the period of the co-operative opposition agreement between the Social Democrats and the Civic Democrats. Some of the Social Democrats were connected with these specific streams and are criticising Spidla because he is trying to finish with the practices from before."

With the fate of the Social Democratic Party crucial to the future of the coalition government, all eyes were set on the three-day party conference last weekend. My colleague, Gerald Schubert from Radio Prague's German department attended the conference. Gerald, what was the atmosphere like?

"The tension was quite high right from the beginning. We can focus on two questions. One is the position of the government, whether it can perform its duties and here the question of whether the Social Democrats are capable of stressing their own political opinions and goals within this government is important, simply because of the fact that the government is quite weak in parliament. The other question is the already old conflict within the Social Democratic Party, mainly focusing on two groups - those who are still in favour of the former party leader Milos Zeman, and the others who are more in favour of party leader Vladimir Spidla. Of course there is also the question of whether it would be possible to form coalitions with the Civic Democrats (ODS) for instance. Some people would welcome that. With the Communists, there is a resolution which states that the party cannot co-operate with the Communists on a national level but there are some people who want to cancel the resolution saying it weakens their position in parliament some tension there."

So what were the results?

"Mr Spidla won the election. There was one other candidate, the former Trade and Industry Minister Jiri Rusnok. Mr Rusnok only received 147 votes and Mr Spidla won 299. So, that looks like quite a big majority but on the other hand, there were a number of votes that were not valid. That means that Mr Spidla was only supported by 54% of those present. It's not a big majority but we can say that Mr Spidla's position has strengthened, although it doesn't look like the conflicts within the Social Democratic Party are really solved."

Now, you already mentioned some of the main points that were discussed. What else was there?

"Of course, the discussion was very much influenced by EU enlargement, which is expected in May 2004. In June the referendum on it will be held in the Czech Republic. So, one of Mr Spidla's biggest advantage is his pro-European perspective, which can't be doubted in the Social Democratic Party and that is why he guarantees to go on in this way. I think this is quite an important reason why Spidla won the elections against Rusnok afterwards."

Do you think that it ensures the government will be stable and there will be no more divisions within the Social Democratic Party.

"I'm sure they didn't get rid of these divisions. I had the possibility to talk to Mr Spidla and I asked him whether he thought that the conflicts could break out again after the referendum in June. He said that the possibility cannot be doubted but he thinks that it's not so tragic as some people tend to say."

I believe there was also a resolution on the war in Iraq...

"Exactly, this resolution was tabled by Richard Falbr and former Foreign Minister and UN General Assembly Chairman Jan Kavan. There was quite strong discussion on the topic. Some people agreed to stress that they are a left-wing party, even if they have difficulties within government to show their point of view. But at the end there was a resolution passed, which agreed that Saddam Hussein is a dictator but noted other ways must be found to get rid of him as military power is not the right way to do that."

But does the resolution stand a chance of winning majority support in parliament? Social Democrat senator, Richard Falbr, believes that the Social Democrats' standpoint will hold much importance, despite opposition from members of the junior coalition parties.

So, from the point of view of many in the party, the three-day party congress has been a success. The Social Democrats have come to a compromise over Iraq, engaged in heated debate over future co-operation with the Communist Party and elected a new leadership. But according to Richard Falbr, it is yet to be seen whether the party will be united for the rest of its term. He believes rebel party colleagues will stop lying low, before the important decisions have been made:

"I think that the crisis existing within the party is not a crisis about ideological differences, it's mainly about personal hostility of one against another. I do not believe that the congress did much in solving it. Those who lost will not be satisfied because the aims they followed were not fulfilled. But my first priority is the referendum to the EU. I think to destabilise the government a couple of months before the referendum would be political nonsense. After the referendum, if it ends well, the fate of the government will be very insecure because we'll be discussing the budget in the autumn. I don't believe that it will be so easy to adopt a budget in the situation that the party and the government are in. I think there will be more problems and I, frankly speaking, do not know what the solution will be."