Social Democrats' integrity weakened by former party leader

Milos Zeman

Developments on the Czech political scene - which has been pretty much deadlocked since the inconclusive general elections in June - have taken an unexpected turn. The ruling Civic Democrats, who have not yet won a confidence vote in Parliament, appear to have found a hole in their opponent's defenses. And surprisingly the man who may help them break the deadlock by dividing the opposition Social Democrats is no longer - at least officially - active in politics.

Milos Zeman
Milos Zeman, the former Social Democrat prime minister who brought the Social Democrats to power in 1998 retired from politics three years ago to live the life of a pensioner in the Moravian Highlands. However he still has staunch allies within the party and enough influence to cause trouble for his successors. His meddling from the Highlands assisted the downfall of two of his successors Vladimir Spidla and Stanislav Gross, both of whom he first favored and then condemned. Now history may be about to repeat itself.

Vlastimil Tlusty,  photo: CTK
In the past few days Milos Zeman received unexpected visitors: the Civic Democrat Finance Minister Vlastimil Tlusty and the former Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek. The official version was that the talks focused on next year's budget. But few people believe that -least of all Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek, who is clearly unnerved by these developments. He fears that his policy of no-tolerance towards the minority Civic Democrat cabinet may be undermined by Zeman's allies within the party, or that this might be an effort to oust him as party leader on the grounds that others would be more constructive in talks. Civic Democrat PM Mirek Topolanek on Thursday confirmed his worst fears when he told the media that with Milos Zeman an agreement would be possible -"since unlike Paroubek, Zeman was statesman enough to put the interests of the state above those of his own party".

Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Mr. Paroubek sent an angry message to the highlands reminding his former ally that he was merely a pensioner and should behave like a rank and file party member. He then hastened to reassure himself about his own position within the party - asking regional leaders to reiterate support for his no-tolerance policy towards the Civic Democrats. The vote is said to have gone in his favor but the seed of uncertainty has been planted. The Civic Democrats have found their Trojan Horse and if they play their cards well the "pensioner from the highlands" could make life very difficult indeed for the man who still hopes to become prime minister.