Social Democrat leader faces criticism as party seeks to improve its image

The weekend conference of the Social Democratic Party saw the re-election of Jiri Paroubek to the post of chairman - but it was a bitter victory for the old new leader. Even without a rival Mr. Paroubek received only 60 percent of delegates' votes and the stormy debate that preceded his election was an indication of the serious internal crisis that is racking the country's leading opposition party.

Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTKJiri Paroubek, photo: CTK Nine months after the party's election defeat in general elections Jiri Paroubek was made to pay his dues. He was openly criticized for not having accepted responsibility for the election defeat, for being arrogant and dictatorial. Mr. Paroubek, who originally threatened to resign if the party did not elect the deputies of his choosing, was in a chastised mood as he responded to the torrent of criticism.

"I am sure I am not without faults but I challenge my opponents to say when I showed myself unwilling to listen to criticism and discuss problems in the party's deputies' group in Parliament."

The fact that the party deputies all gained 85 to 90 percent support has some commentators suggesting that Jiri Paroubek is on his way out and may soon be replaced by the Social Democrat's crown prince - Bohuslav Sobotka - a politician who is young, more moderate and highly communicative. Political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova believes the time is not yet ripe for a change of leadership.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK "The conference sent a clear message to Mr. Paroubek - that they still wanted him in the post but they also wanted him to know that his position is not as strong as it used to be. I think the message was mainly about the need for greater communication and for him to be able to analyze his mistakes. As far as Mr. Sobotka is concerned I think that he is the man of the future for the Social Democrats but I think his time has not yet come. And I also think that he would not wish to take over at this point in time. He is young yet, he needs some more experience and a more stabilized party. So to sum it up, Mr. Paroubek's mandate is rather weak but he pragmatic enough to change. He is able to analyze his own mistakes and he has accepted the criticism directed against him."

There is however much more standing in the way of the party's success than its authoritarian leader. The party is seeking a new direction -it needs to attract young people - and although "modernization" was the operative word at this conference there was little to show for it in practice. Mr. Paroubek's proposal to introduce quotas for women and young people on the party's list of election candidates, was swept off the table. Vladimira Dvorakova says that unless the party can open up to reform it has no future.

Jiri Paroubek and Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTKJiri Paroubek and Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK "It seems that the Social Democrats do not have a policy programme for the young generation, for women and that is very surprising because it is mainly centre left parties who speak about equal opportunities and support for young, educated people. So this is something they have to change. How they will do that is another question."

A lot of Mr. Paroubek's suggestions were swept off the table, so what's the situation within the party? Does everyone want change - or rather, is there a majority capable of implementing change?

"I think that the main problem is the structure of the party and the factions that are operating at regional level, that the party is somehow "frozen" if I can put it that way. That means that there are older people lacking ideas or that they are competing against one another and not thinking about the party's policy programme."