Interview: Czech leaders look to upcoming elections

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.

“It is a kind of historical paradox because the Social Democrats never wanted the Czech Republic to become a member of NATO, and I think the EU membership is the same story,” he said.

The real contradiction is between the ODS and its voters, said Jan Hartl, who heads one of the country's top polling agencies, STEM.

“ODS voters are clearly pro-EU, and it's one of the long-lasting paradoxes in our political scene,” he said. “The ODS electorate is far more in favor of the EU, but the representatives of the ODS are more Euroskeptical.”

The Social Democrat's Paroubek points out that it is the ODS that is holding up the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Of the EU's 27 member nations, only the Czech Republic and Ireland have yet to ratify the treaty, which aims to increase EU efficiency.

“All of the Social Democratic MPs in the lower house already voted in favor, and without the Social Democratic support, the Lisbon Treaty would not have been passed by the lower House of Parliament,” he said. “We're going to do the same on the Czech senate on May 6 and I assume we'll be supported by centrist parties and some in the ODS.”

Just how much support the treaty will get from ODS parliamentarians remains an open question, leaving the treaty hanging in the balance.

“The support to the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty is a necessity that we have realized, but (there) is no enthusiasm,” Topolanek said, hardly sounding like a political leader who is committed to the EU.

Topolanek said he was only 75 percent certain the measure would pass. If the Senate fails to ratify the treaty because of the ODS senators, the party will have an even more difficult task — it is currently facing a 3 to 4 percent deficit in public opinion polls — in the elections.

If elections go ahead as planned in October, they will come nearly 20 years after the collapse of communism.

“The extraordinary election is going to take place on the eve of the Velvet Revolution,” Topolanek said. “So that's something which brings into the game a kind of special dimension. It is going to show whether the society, 20 years since the revolution, is a more pro-western or pro-eastern oriented.”

But this attempt to link the Social Democrats — whom he purposely referred to as “the socialists” throughout the interview — with the country's communist past is dubious, said Hartl, the polling expert.

“ODS playing the anti-communist card has been tried before with limited success,” he said. “It's not a very strong position.”

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Obama comes to Prague

Czechs relish first opportunity to see Andy Warhol's films