>Wag the dog? New faction highlights dilemmas of Czech right

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Hard to know entirely what to make of the new factional grouping (no name other than self-description as ‘reformist parliamentary platform’) set up in the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS), but ex-Finance Spokesman and ex-flat tax supreme, Vlastimil Tlustý (picture opposite). It seems to have little programme beyond keeping ODS loyal to its programmatic principles and acting as a vehicle for Tlustý’s dissident views – already very publicly promoted in ODS fora – that the reform package agreed by the minority Green/Christian Democrat/Civic Democrat government was too insipid and gave too much away to coalition partners and the whims of the two ex-Social Democrat deputies, who hold the balance in the Czech lower house. Despite signing up eight ODS deputies reports say Tlustý’s criticism (echoed by economists of a liberal stripe, who were similarly underwhelmed by the package) has wider sympathy in the party and its parliamentary group. Indeed, arguably it reflects a pattern of discomfort with the pragmatism (or more kindly realism) of ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek, traceable to collapse of last year’s negotiations for a Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. Tellingly, the faction is open to ODS deputies, senators and regional governors.

ODS leader Miroslav Topolánek seems to be continuing to play it cordially with Tlustý, whose sidelining in last year’s long drawn out series of coalition negotiations and previous prominence make him a powerful potential rival for Topolánek if things unravel. Tlustý, similarly, had kept party discipline and voted in parliament for a reform package he disliked in the apparent hope of seeing it beefed up later, although in an interview carried in video by MFD (and televised?) on 9 May he bluntly described Topolánek is a ‘conman’ (podvodník) guilty of ‘electoral fraud’ in admitting a programme to voters he knew to be unrealizable – although quite where the votes would come from for radical reforms is very unclear given the coalition-based politics of the CR, God alone knows. For the moment, however, Topolánek’s characterization of the faction as a ‘pressure group’ bringing positive pressure to bear seems pretty accurate – it wants to be a tail that wags the dog exercising leverage over ODS, its smaller partners and the two dissident Social Democrats (who don’t have much of a future in politics after this parliament is dissolved) by creating uncertainty as to whether it will back the government. Lidové noviny carries its founding declaration.

Viewed in a longer term, however, the emergence of an open elite level faction in ODS is unprecedented. There were rumours of a similar type of faction in 1992-3 being formed deputies dissatisfied with Klaus’s lack of free market and/or anti-communist élan and, of course, the ill-fated ‘platform’ of supporters of Jan Ruml in 1997-8 after the later had ‘assassinated’ Klaus in a televised call for him to resign. However, this group’s efforts at independence led to threats of expulsion and it proved simply to be a rallying point for the foundation of the a new anti-Klaus party, the Freedom Union, a once rising force now firmly in the dustbin of Czech political history. Topolánek’s reaction is thus both an sign that ODS has become the more pluralistic party dreamed of by its would-be reformers of 1990s in which dissenting views get a hearing and regional voices matter and indication of the acute political weakness of Topolánek as leader. In the medium term a fight is shaping up between pragmatists like Topolánek who recognise the Czech free market’s rights limitations and look to cut the best realist compromise deals they can and those who see this as selling the party’s soul and presaging its decline into a Southern European style alliance of regional and business lobbies. This latter group, however, need to find that political North West Passage of Czech politics, a route to a strong liberal centre-right majority government in the Czech Republic which the voters and the electoral system have combined to deny ODS for more than a decade.
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