Current Affairs Charmed by Zeman, Social Democrats drop Dienstbier from leadership
The Social Democrats chose a new leadership at a closely-watched congress at the weekend. The conference re-elected Bohuslav Sobotka as chairman to lead the country’s main opposition party into next year’s general election, which many expect them to win. But the congress also showed that the road to power may not be smooth.
President Miloš Zeman’s speech was one of the most anxiously anticipated events of the Social Democrat party congress held in the northeastern city of Ostrava on Friday and Saturday. Mr Zeman, who back in the 1990s transformed the Social Democrats into a leading political force, quit the party in acrimony some 10 years ago, after its leaders refused to support his first presidential bid in 2003.
Some Social Democrat politicians were concerned that Miloš Zeman, recently elected president by the people, would be back with a vengeance. But instead he charmed the congress, and received standing ovations from delegates during his speech.
“As president of the Czech Republic, it is my duty to be impartial. As citizen Miloš Zeman, I wish for the victory of the Social Democrats in the next elections.”
The Social Democrats seemed to have overcome the tensions between the allies and adversaries of Mr Zeman at the conference. Thanks to a behind-the-scenes deal between the two camps, Bohuslav Sobotka, considered an opponent of Mr Zeman’s influence in the party, was re-elected party chair with more than 83 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Michal Hašek, the president’s leading ally, defended his post of first deputy chair with similarly large support.
But the congress decided there was no room in party leadership for the most vocal critic of Mr Zeman, Senator Jiří Dienstibier. Mr Dienstbier, who himself ran for president as the party’s official candidate, is popular with liberal Czech voters who might otherwise not support the Social Democrats. But at the congress, Senator Dienstbier failed to defend his post as a deputy party chairman. For party leader Bohuslav Sobotka, this was a considerable setback.
“I have to say this is bad news because my job is to make sure that the party leadership is made up of people who have the strong support of the public and who help the party in the elections. So I’m a little afraid that a suicidal tendency prevailed when Jiří Dienstbier was not elected. But it’s a decision of the congress, and we have to respect that.”
At the conference, the Social Democrats also unveiled parts of the programme for the election year of 2014. They pledged to raise the taxes for businesses and high income earners, abolish the current government’s pension reform, fight corruption, and introduce changes to the education and health care systems. But commentator Jiří Pehe says the congress focused mainly on future government policies and much less on actually winning the election.
“The congress looked like a meeting of people who were certain that they would take over the government next year. They talked more about their plans for governing than about the party. We should not forget the Social Democrat party is not in a good shape and it’s been losing voters. But there was almost no talk about the party itself, about its programme and ideas. That may be something that could hurt the party even before the elections.”