Vladimir Spidla strikes back?

Jiri Rusnok, photo; CTK

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla made the first move on Thursday to reassert his authority over rebels in his Social Democrat party, when he announced he was sacking Trade and Industry Minister Jiri Rusnok. Mr Rusnok was one of the ring-leaders of a recent plot to defy the prime minister and ensure that opposition candidate Vaclav Klaus was elected president. Mr Rusnok's removal was meant to send a clear signal to Mr Spidla's opponents, but many analysts have been left wondering whether he hasn't shot himself in the foot. Rob Cameron reports.

Jiri Rusnok,  photo: CTK
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla announced the first re-shuffle in his eight-month-old cabinet on Thursday, when he appeared at a news conference to announce he was dismissing Trade and Industry Minister Jiri Rusnok. The prime minister said Mr Rusnok - the only economist in the cabinet - was being asked to leave because of "a long-term breakdown in political communication", but few were under any illusions about the real reason for his dismissal.

Jiri Rusnok was one of the few Social Democrats who openly defied Mr Spidla and refused to back the government's compromise candidate for president. He was also one of the few Social Democrats MPs who admitted afterwards that he had supported Vaclav Klaus - most of his colleagues refused to reveal how they had voted in the secret ballot. So his sacking comes as no surprise.

But many - both observers and party members - have questioned the prime minister's handling of the affair. Why Jiri Rusnok, asked Social Democrat senator Richard Falbr, and not Labour and Social Affairs Minister Zdenek Skromach? Mr Skromach, he said, poses a greater threat to Mr Spidla's authority, since he enjoys considerable support in the Social Democrats. And why not tell the truth about the reasons for Mr Rusnok's dismissal? asked Senator Falbr.

Jiri Rusnok,  photo: CTK
Mr Rusnok belongs to a group of Social Democrats loyal to Mr Spidla's predecessor Milos Zeman. They are unhappy with the current centre-left cabinet, and would prefer a return to the "opposition agreement", when the Social Democrats shared power with Mr Klaus's Civic Democrats. Mr Spidla has tried to break away from the era of the "opposition agreement", but analysts say it was a mistake to include the agreement's supporters - Messrs Rusnok and Skromach among them - in his cabinet in the first place.

So what now for Mr Spidla? He defends the party leadership when the Social Democrats hold their annual conference at the end of the month, and many believe he still has some way to go towards consolidating his position. And even if Mr Spidla is re-elected, the battle within his party will continue. The Social Democrats have still not resolved the fundamental ideological split that divides them: whether to keep the fragile centre-left coalition, or create a new one with the help of the Civic Democrats - or even the Communists - instead.