>Klaus to quit ODS and back new eurosceptic grouping?

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And, as emerges in the daily papers, what Václav Klaus seems to have up his sleeve is the formation of a eurosceptic civic association-cum-party loosely modelled on the Libertas organization of Irish eurosceptic entrepreneur, Declan Ganley, which recently hosted the Czech President in Dublin. The new grouping, which seems likely to be based around the resources and personnel of the well-established Klaus thinktank, the Centre for Economics and Politics (CEPin), and is reported to be considering contesting in next year’s Euro-elections. The provisional name for the project is said to be Libertas.cz, although as this is the web address of a military re-enactment society, which re-stages long lost historic battles (is that an omen?) if the project ever did get legs, the grouping would have to come up with some more obviously resonant name.

The ever cautious Klaus has, it seems, left it to others to develop the project (although his leading thinktankers have all denied doing so) and feed the rumour mill rather in the same way that ex-Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman has allowed a Friends of Miloš Zeman Society to be set up to promote his (probably non-existent) chances of gaining the Czech Presidency. However – equally characteristically – in an interview with MFDnes Klaus expresses qualified approval for the idea of a new eurosceptic right-wing grouping in Czech politics and when asked about his future in the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) said that he didn’t quite know his membership status (odd, since he is actually Honorary President of the party – apparently he doesn’t have to pay dues so his membership can’t lapse), but will be in it “for a few more days yet”. They can speculate about if that means he is leaving the party he tells them.

There seem to be two immediate factors prompting the very Klausian piece of kite flying: 1) the Constitutional Court’s clearing of the Lisbon Treaty, which Klaus is vehemently opposed to as the first step on the road to an European superstate and extinguishing of Czechs’ right to rule themselves (see his speech to the Constitutional Court for a rehearsal of these now familiar arguments – parliament can now go ahead and ratify it and, despite the government’s minority status and whatever support Klaus might muster from some ODS deputies and senators, both chambers will ratify it by large majorities ; and 2) the increasingly obviously failure of mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém’s attempt to unseat PM Miroslav Topolánek at the Civic Democrats’ forthcoming congress. Bém was backed by Klaus and tried to sound some the right ideological notes with his call for a return to the party’s vote and some out-of-the-blue denunciations of the Lisbon Treaty, but VK’s endorsement is perhaps not a great recommendation to many sections of ODS party , who were, after all, desperate to rid themselves of Klaus in 2002 and with his hasty challenge to Topolánek after the regional and Senate elections clearly overplayed his hand.

With little support outside Prague – and of course, as Topolánek’s surprise election in 2002 and Klaus’s own emergence as leader of Civic Forum way back in 1990 show, it’s the regions that really matter – Bém’s campaign seems doomed. Various political allies have already deserted him and his power base in Prague is said to be crumbling. Some possibly dubious business dealing during his time as mayor, a slightly comic action man image (he took time out to climb Mount Everest) and the various very expensive watches he sported whilst claiming to value a thrifty and modest lifestyle have also done nothing to add to enhance his credibility. His decision to press on with the leadership challenge despite all this and force a vote at the ODS congress as a way of showing political toughness and resolution is interpreted by many as a sign of bad judgement and a quixotic temperament.

What chance does the new Klauspartei have? Well, if we think of it as a revamp of CEPin, it clearly has ideological resources to run a campaign and some basic organization and finance, would garner a lot of interest as a new force associated with the ever magnetic Klaus; and, especially, in a low turnout second order election like a euro-election might pick some chunk of the vote, perhaps 10-20%, who knows? However, despite Klaus’s profile and possible financial pulling power and the ability to perhaps draw in some ODS members, it would – as a small outfit with an annual income of 4.7 million crowns a year in 2007 and we can roughly estimate from its 2007 Annual report about 5-10 million in capital assets. The eStat thinktank originally founded to the reform and reduction public administration, but has recently taken an increasingly eurosceptic turn has also very publicly projected itself as a Czech Libertas and has links with Ganley’s movement. need a very quick injection of cash and organizational fight an effective national campaign. Not impossible – after all Silvio Berlusconi managed it Declan Ganley and his financial backers are said to be willing to put money into a ‘Czech branch’ of Libertas (although – especially if it were formally registered as a party – they would have to be careful to stay on the right side of Czech legislation). But a tall order nevertheless. In loosely comparable circumstances in 1998 the liberal anti-Klaus breakaway, the Freedom Union, lost a lot of momentum because of organizational weakness and problems of internal co-ordination in a four month run-up to election.

But, the experience of the 2002 parliamentary elections suggests, Europe is not a high salience issue for Czech voters and, crucially, most right-wing voters favour steps towards further political integration embodied in the defunct EU Constitution and nowreformulated in the Lisbon Treaty. Topolánek’s argument that pragmatically, Lisbon is the best deal the Czech Republic (any anyone else) can get and that the real choiie is not Prague versus Brussels, but Brussels versus Moscow – an imperfect by functional EU versus creeping Russian influence over fractured, disintegrating Union – is one that is likely to resonate more with many centrist and right-wing voters.

The real issue is perhaps the impact that Libertas.cz might have on the fracturing Czech right. Here the underlying issue is how wide, how ideologically pure and how militant the Czech centre-right should be: Topolánek in his bluff but practical way has worked out that it needs to be broad, pro-market but pragmatic; and work on accomodating itself in a meaningful sway to ocial forces and small parties it can’t shift aside, rather talking the purest Thatcherism and cutting haphazard deals on the side. The then Czech Foreign Minister and ODS Deputy leader Josef Zieleniec reached very similar conclusions in 1996 (and that without the failed intermezzo of trying to be a flat tax crusader that Topolánek inherited from Klaus and tried in 2002-6 – does anyone remember the Blue Chance programme?). Klaus, of course, thinks different and has over the years stirred some potent ingredients into his own distinct ideological brew (climate change denial, forays against multi-culturalism and immigration and so on).

I can’t see any of this taking much root in the CR, beyond perhaps some small and shorted lived minor party. Klaus should perhaps re-read some of his own speeches of the earlier 1990s warning against high faluttin’ ideological waffle and urging hard-headed pragmatism to deliver social and economic change on the ground. Still he may yet do for the Czech right.

Will his ultimate legacy be to destroy the party he created so successfully in 1990-2 ?

Update: HN reports Petr Mach, the Executive Director, of Klaus’s CEPin thinktank as saying that the foundation of Libertas.cz is a dead certainy (hotová věc), but that he has nothing to do with it. He is, however, considering founding a eurosceptic party along with former Klaus aide and ODS founder (now returning to the fold after splitting with VK in the 1990s) Petr Havlík. Their decision will be dependent on how things turn out at the ODS congress. More smoke and mirror? Well perhaps, although apparently, the difference between Mach et al and the initiators of Libertas.cz (whoever they are) is that they want to set up a party capable of contesting the 2010 parliamentary elections, not just a disponsible, one-off formation for the Euro-elections.
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