>Czech politics: all over soon for Topolánek?

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The Civic Democrats’ political soap opera (‘an everyday story of right-wing political folk’) rumbles on. Party leader Miroslav Topolánek, having sprayed some rather ill considered invective at opponents and critics in his own party (including honorary party Chairman, President Klaus) dissatisfied at the less than advantageous deal he cut with smaller parties in agree a second minority government – and this government’s less than good (actually close to nil) chances of making it through the required parliamentary vote of confidence, has now said he will (offer to) resign as party leader if he doesn’t win the vote. He has alienated so many in his own party – the influential first deputy chair and mayor of Prague Pavel Bém his flat tax supremo, his finance spokesperson and former right-hand man Vlastimil Tlustý, whose abilities he compared unfavourably to discredited ex-Christian Democrat leader (and Finance Minister designate) Miroslav Kalousek; foreign policy guru, arch-eurosceptic and head of the ODS MEPs, Jan Zahradil; and of course, pan prezident, His Excellency Václav Klaus. Despite promising to vote for the government, ODS deputies seem mightly discontented, a few like party favourite and (former?) social affairs spokesperson Alena Páralová are more or less openly saying they would have problems voting for Topolánek’s second dead end effort at forming a minority administration. The mood in the party seems to be that if – perhaps when – he blows he again they will take him up on his generous offer and not beg him to stay.
Topolánek, however, has other problems. Czech media have just (co-incidentally?) got hold of the story that the ODS leader is living with fellow ODS deputy Lucie Talmanová (picture right), whose relationship with Topolánek triggered the break-up of his marriage last year, leading Mrs Topolánková into a foray into politics standing against ODS in last year’s senate election (she was eliminated in the first round of voting, but ODS lost the seat). The couple are not denying reports that Talmanová is expecting a baby, although Topolánek is reported by the Czech tabloid press (sadly tame by British standards, alas) to have spent parts of the Christmas holiday with both women, but to have been accompanied by Mrs T. to an official dinner with President Klaus – what an occasion that must have been – and there are apparently no plans for a divorce.

The politics of this seem to be that there is a fairly nasty factional struggle developing within ODS and the gloves are off. Topolánek had already been warned he faces a second “Sarajevo” – an internal party revolt by top leaders analogous that that brought down Klaus as PM in December 1997 and the revelations about his private life – that paint him as unreliable, indecisive, accident prone, distracted and just plain sad and middle aged – suggest that the plotters against him mean to finish him off with rather ruthlessness than the incompetent, half-cocked move against Klaus in 1997. Klaus himself is taking is time with nominated a government – officially waiting for the ministers’ full CVs – presumably to allow things to unwind for Topolánek.

It’s hard to see how Topolánek can survive. The obvious front runner to replace him would seem to be the party’s no. 2 Pavel Bém. Politically, this would mean a revival of the project for a three party Grand Coalition of Civic, Social and Christian Democrats almost agreed before Christmas. It would also mean a shift in power towards the Prague regional organization within ODS – logical since the capital is an electoral bastion – at the expense of Ostrava (Topolánek’s home region, but also where Klaus cut his teeth campaigning for Civic Forum in the early 1990s) and perhaps also Brno. Moravian social conservatives within the party should, however, be able to do business over social and family policy with the Christian Democrats and probably the Social Democrats too. The Greens – not liked by Social Democrat leader Paroubek or the Christian Democrat leader Čunek, whose mass eviction of Roma from municipal housing as mayor Vsetín they sharply criticised – will be out in the cold (which could benefit them electorally). However, Bém is no shoo-in. Although Topolánek’s maladroit handling of the political situation have made him about as popular in the party as the Black Death, his current policy of avoiding a Grand Coalition and going for a right-leaning government is the more popular option for many the regions. And, of course, there are the usual resentments against Pragocentrism, the suspicions that Bém would divert funding to the capital etc

More fundamentally, having gone flat out for flat tax and market forces in 2006, what would the Civic Democrats actually stand for if they can happily sit in the same government as the Social Democrats? Would they simply become the (neo-)liberal pillar in some Czech form of Dutch or Belgian style consensus democracy based on variants of left-right co-operation? Petr Nečas, the leading voice of US-influenced social conservatism in ODS, warned against such a future in 2002 when making his own bid for the party leadership, advocating a kind of Hungarian style ctach-all national-populism to win a majority for the right. The speech lost him the election andlater threw in his lot with Topolánek. Perhaps he is the joker in the pack.

Another intriguing question hovering in the background is what happen to the wily Zahradil and ODS’s rampant and well developed ‘euro-realism’? Zahradil and many ODS eurorealists – not least President Klaus, who does his own line in euroscepticism (big vision, ‘Europeism’ as a new anti-liberal, anti-national ideolofy) are rather favourable to the idea of a Grand Coalition, thinking that it could be a useful vehicle for refocusing Czech politics on the promotion of national interests in Europe and (presumably) that they will convert europhile coalition partners to their point of view. In practice, however, the logic of a Grand Coalition implies compromise on European policy and no early recall to domestic politics for Zahradil, whose euroscepticism is totally indigestable for the europhile Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. His chances of becoming Foreign Minister seem slim and as a Pražák himself now part of the Euro-elite he despises, he is hardly well placed to set himself as a Man of the People standing up for the provincial heartlands against the metropolis.

Still, he is still in the political game and that’s what counts. The same may soon not be true of Topolánek, whose political career rise to the top has for me always resembled some small town football club unexpected promoted to the Premier League, hanging on spiritedly for a couple of seasons before facing a rapid and inevitable drop when their luck runs out.
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