Social Democrats left high and dry after two deputies break party ranks

Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

The news that two Social Democratic Party deputies had agreed to tolerate the centre-right cabinet in a vote of confidence on Friday has dealt a bad blow to the left-wing Social Democrats. Party leader Jiri Paroubek said the party would now close ranks and give the centre-right government a hard time from the opposition benches - but there are many who suggest that Mr. Paroubek now faces a decisive power struggle within his own party.

Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
What was it that weakened the Social Democrats after a seven-month long power struggle with their main rival? According to Jiri Paroubek it was the presence of "two traitors" in the party, but political analysts suggest that the party's unity was undermined by a tug-of-war between its present and former leaders.

Milos Zeman, the man who made the party a political force to be reckoned with, is no longer active in politics but from his hide-out in the Moravian highlands he still wields considerable influence. Ever since the Social Democrats' defeat in the June general elections he has said the party should go into opposition. Now two deputies who are believed to be his supporters -Milos Melcak and Michal Pohanka - have made this happen. Last week Mr. Zeman even urged the Social Democrats to elect a new leader. Political analyst Petr Just says that a showdown between the two factions in the party is likely to take place at its national conference in March.

"The actions of Mr. Melcak and Mr. Pohanka might inspire the Zeman wing - or the unofficial Zeman wing I should say- to be more open and direct at the upcoming party conference in March. Much will depend on how many of the delegates will represent the so-called Zeman wing and how many will represent the Paroubek wing. This balance of power will decide the direction which the party will take."

What is the main point of dispute between these two men? They were friends not so long ago.

Milos Zeman
"Actually this is a question I ask myself quite often. And I do not really understand their dispute. I think it is more about personal ambitions than policy programme or party values."

On Wednesday Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek hit out at those whom he blames for the party's present situation. He told President Klaus that he had handled the government talks badly, which meant the Social Democrats would not be able to support his re-election next year. He told Milos Zeman that a man who settled personal scores with his party could also not be considered as a potential presidential candidate. And he has accused the two party rebels of betrayal and accepting bribes to support Topolanek' s government - saying he would press charges against both. In a matter of days the tables have turned. It is no longer the prime minister who is fighting for political survival - but his main rival Jiri Paroubek.