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Interview: Czech leaders look to upcoming elections

Parties jockey for support after the collapse of government.

PRAGUE — With a caretaker government set to take office, the country's political parties are turning their focus to upcoming elections for the national parliament.

In a pair of exclusive interviews with GlobalPost, outgoing Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and the leader of the largest opposition party, Jiri Paroubek, each discussed strategy and their chances for success in the elections.

Topolanek's minority government collapsed last month after a no-confidence vote. A caretaker government is due to be installed this month and will rule until the election of a new government. Topolanek's three-party governing coalition survived for 26 months with a razor-thin majority in parliament.

For now, at least, Paroubek, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), seems to have the wind at his back.

He has a clear goal: “To stop the government of Mirek Topolanek from coming back with their programs that are anti-social,” he said, ticking off health care, an opt-out option for pensions and plans to introduce tuition fees at universities as examples.

Health care reforms under Topolanek, which imposed seemingly token fees of 30 to 60 koruna ($1.50 to $3) for doctor's visits and medications, are widely seen as having led the CSSD to a rout in regional elections last fall, when the party captured all but one of the country's 13 governor's posts.

Topolanek defended his performance as prime minister, citing the introduction of measures to combat the economic crisis and his success as president of the European Union. (The Czech Republic is currently hosting the rotating EU presidency.)

Yet he said he isn't planning to run on his record. “As far as the content of the campaign we're going to present the classical liberal, conservative, program,” said Topolanek, who serves as chairman of the Civic Democratic Party, known locally by the initials ODS.

But in the next breath he said substance would take a back seat to form in the upcoming elections.

“This campaign will revolve around form and instrument, rather than the content,” he said. “Content is not going to be the primary matter as far as this upcoming campaign is concerned, I'm sure about that.”

His party must also confront the split between its leaders and voters on questions related to the EU. The ODS voters represent one of the most fervently pro-EU voting blocks in the country, yet the party has long been hostile to the EU.

The country joined NATO and the European Union in 1999 and 2004, respectively, under the leadership of the Social Democrats. But Topolanek dismissed arguments that the Social Democrats have a strong record of favoring European integration.