Vaclav Klaus bows out as head of ODS

Vaclav Klaus, Photo: CTK

After almost twelve years as head of the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party, Vaclav Klaus has decided to call it quits. On Thursday the former prime-minister surprised some, if not all, by his flash decision to step down as head of the ODS, relinquishing the chance to slug it out a at party leadership convention in December. Instead, Vaclav Klaus named four possible successors, and, above all, indicated he would now set his sights on a new prize: the Czech presidency. Jan Velinger has the story.

Vaclav Klaus has indicated that he had had enough: after much speculation about his political future he announced on Thursday that he was stepping down as head of the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party, the ODS, a party he has led from its inception in 1991. In many ways it is an impressive decision: only a few months ago a Civic Democratic party without Vaclav Klaus was unthinkable, certainly for the party faithful. Even a poor second place in June's parliamentary elections didn't appear to shake Mr Klaus' famously solid position as ODS head, at least at first.

Then, just two weeks ago, the first indications of change began to appear, when a deputy minister and others publicly threw their support behind the governor of Moravia and Silesia Evzen Tosenovsky, who announced he would candidate at the party convention in December. Tosenovsky said he welcomed a contest with Klaus, and it has to be said most ODS members viewed the challenge as a positive development for a party that had all too often been criticised as belonging to one man alone. But it remained up to Mr Klaus to tip his hand... Now he has: first, by deciding to let go of the party leadership, second, by setting his sights on a bigger prize to try and revive his influence on the Czech political scene: winning the Czech presidency. In February 2003 the playwright president Vaclav Havel will step down after 13 years in office, and the question of who will lead the country will become more open than at any other time since the Velvet Revolution.

But is there any chance of Mr Klaus actually getting elected? His chances go from poor to minimal many analysts say; a Social Democrat led-government in office combined with the fact that in the Czech Republic the president is not elected by direct vote but by both houses of parliament, makes the success of a Klaus candidacy highly unlikely. What's more, some commentators view Mr Klaus's decision to aim for the presidency as more of a tactical manoeuvre than a serious bid, simply a means of saving face and going out "while ahead", rather than risking a potentially humiliating defeat at a party convention in December.