Topolánek resists pressure to step down as head of Civic Democrats

Mirek Topolánek (Foto: ČTK)

The head of the Civic Democratic Party, Mirek Topolánek, has resisted intense pressure from his own party to step down, in the wake of controversial remarks made during an interview for a Czech gay magazine. In the interview, he referred disparagingly to both the Church and voters of the Social Democrats and singled out the transport minister as gay and the prime minister as Jewish. His comments caused an uproar that culminated in almost 12 hours of deliberations by top party leaders on Tuesday, most of whom wanted him to go. But Mr Topolánek stuck to his guns.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
Mirek Topolánek has long been known for blunt statements bordering on the acceptable, and a reputation, critics say, for speaking faster than he thinks. But rarely has he caused a scandal of such proportions. The political fallout on Tuesday culminated in long hours of deliberation among senior Civic Democrats, many of them calling for Topolánek’s head, among them Senate leader Přemysl Sobotka, deputy head of the lower house Miroslava Němcová; and former minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra. But Mr Topolánek stood his ground. In a press conference afterwards he announced that he was staying on – despite internal disagreement – and intended to lead the Civic Democrats to victory in the May election. Many observers, though, are sceptical that his party will be able to reunite and greatly improve its chances; political analyst Vladimíra Dvořáková:

“There can be some compromise, which means that the party will behave like a unified body and the internal conflict will be limited to prevent more negative impact ahead of the election. This can be done. But I think more volatile voters may already be considering other parties and could now move to TOP 09 as an alternative.”

Even if the party stands to lose voters over the scandal, few think that the Civic Democrats’ chances would have markedly improved had Mirek Topolánek stepped down. The reason is simple: the party has not groomed an obvious successor to its current chairman. Until now, Mr Topolánek’s political gaffes were less serious and there’s no denying that in the past he led his party to victorious regional, European and national elections. But now that he has increasingly become a liability, it is unclear who, if anyone, could readily step in to take his place. Political analyst Vladimíra Dvořáková again:

“To have Mirek Topolánek continue as leader is something like political suicide but the problem is that they have no one right now who could replace him. I am sure there are personalities within the party who could step up in the future but not with two months to go. There is no one with enough charisma to appeal to the public, who could change the situation. If they discussed changing leaders now that would lead to a disintegration of the party into different factions and the situation would be even worse. Everybody knows that to go to the elections led by Mirek Topolánek is not a very good idea; but in fact there is no other solution.”

Given the situation, can the Civic Democrats rebound? Certainly right now not many are betting on it. But as Vladimíra Dvořáková and other analysts point out, two months can be a long time in politics: a lot could still change.