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Czech Republic: Opposition Replaces Longtime Leader Klaus

  • Kathleen Moore

The main Czech opposition party has a new leader, only the second in the Civic Democratic Party's nearly 12-year history. Mirek Topolanek, a senator with little name recognition until now, was the surprise choice to replace party founder Vaclav Klaus, the former prime minister who dominated Czech politics for much of the 1990s. Observers say the appointment signals that the party has at last severed the "umbilical cord" tying it to Klaus.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It's the beginning of the "Khrushchev era." That headline, published over a commentary in a Czech newspaper, is a bit of an overstatement, referring as it does to the relative "thaw" in the Soviet Union after Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Josef Stalin.

But it gives a sense of the importance attached to this weekend's leadership changes in the Czechs' main center-right party, the Civic Democratic Party, or ODS.

It's also indicative of the grip Vaclav Klaus had on his party since he founded it in 1991, carving it from Civic Forum, the broad civic movement that swept the Communists from power in 1989.

Klaus was for years a guarantee of his party's success at the ballot box, and he led governments throughout the 1990s. But after a second successive general-election defeat this year, Klaus finally gave in to pressure to move on, saying in October he would stand aside and run for president instead.

And on 15 December, the party chose a successor. Not the Klaus favorite, defense expert Petr Necas, or even the party's foreign-policy expert, Jan Zahradil. Instead, in a tight vote, delegates chose the "dark horse," 46-year-old ODS senate leader Mirek Topolanek.

Klaus was evidently disappointed. The tabloid "Blesk" showed a photo of him sending a text message on his mobile phone that read: "That phony Topolanek, he's worse than..." The message trails off, leaving the reader to fill in the blank.

Klaus and his successor both laughed this off -- and then said they'd sue. Topolanek said they've had their differences but nothing very serious. "I don't have bad relations with Chairman Vaclav Klaus, and if we have sparred, that's more to do with the fact that we're completely different types of people," Topolanek said.

Though Klaus will no longer be at the party helm, that's not to say he's bowing out of politics. He can still contribute from behind the scenes in his new post of honorary ODS chairman, and he's the party's candidate for president when Vaclav Havel's term ends early next year.

Political analyst Zdenek Zboril said this all shows the party wanted to make a break with the past without rejecting it outright.

He said Topolanek won partly because he ran the party's successful campaign for the local and senate elections in the fall. But he's also a clear-talking "prototype" of what Zboril said is a new wave of regional politicians. "It's all been a mistake by Prague journalists and those who sit in Prague cafes discussing politics [to say this was a surprise]. Everyone who's been following the ODS in the last two, three years knows that there has been a rise of regional politicians, apparent outsiders who have strong backgrounds in the places they're from. Senator Topolanek is a prototype of these politicians," Zboril said.

Zboril said the choice of Topolanek -- a longtime businessman whose political base is in Ostrava, in northern Moravia -- marks a shift away from ideology-based politics to the "realistic" politics of pragmatism and negotiation.

He's also likely to play a key role in any haggling to settle the presidential election scheduled for next month in parliament. At this point, it looks like a three-horse race between Klaus, former Prime Minister Milos Zeman, and Senate Chairman Petr Pithart. But it's still wide open, and the press has been full of speculation over the many possible scenarios.

As yet, it's unclear in what direction Topolanek will take the ODS. He says he wants to reclaim ground on issues such as education, family, and social policies but that he won't "shift a millimeter" from the party's ideology.

But if party members were anxious to cut the umbilical cord from their longtime leader, they also realize it's Klaus's strong leadership that helped keep them in top politics for so long.

Zdenka Mansfeldova from the Czech Academy of Sciences' Sociology Institute said: "The economic reform [was] at the beginning very successful. [Klaus] was able to form a vision, a vision that was connected with some success, at least until 1996, 1997. A strong leader with a vision, with an understandably formulated vision and economic success -- it was a very good start and a condition for longtime success in political life."

Janusz Bugajski is director of the Eastern Europe Project at CSIS, a Washington think tank, and the author of a guide to politics in Central and Eastern Europe.

He said the political right in other countries in the region tends to be more fractious than the left. It's relatively rare for a right-wing party to maintain cohesion and the same leadership for as long as the ODS and to be able to stand in successive elections with a strong chance of winning. Hungary has FIDESZ, but in Slovakia and Poland, small parties have had to cobble together coalitions in order to govern. "The center-left has been able to organize itself much better -- to change, to adapt, and really in most cases to maintain the same leadership. The right -- if you keep losing, you're going to lose the leadership. This is why the ODS has been quite successful, because they have managed to stay pretty strong, pretty united," Bugajski said.

Still, the Czech Republic does have other, smaller right-of-center parties too. One, the Freedom Union, split off from the ODS, joined up with another tiny party, and is now in a coalition government with the Social Democrats.

Personal animosities between Klaus and Freedom Union leaders previously nixed any chances of their teaming up to keep the center-left from power. But Zboril said Topolanek's ascendance could pave the way for closer cooperation. "So far, [the ODS] has shown that at the regional level they're able to negotiate and form coalitions with parties on the right and the left, pragmatically and with a particular goal in mind. If Topolanek can manage to do this at the national level, then I don't think there will be a problem forming perhaps not a strong, integrated right wing as one political party, but definitely some kind of strong right-wing coalition that can be very successful at the next election," Zboril said.

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2006 but may be held sooner, if the fragile Social Democrat-Freedom Union governing coalition fails to hold.