Education Minister Petra Buzkova to bow out of politics


Earlier in her career she enjoyed greater popularity but there's no question Education Minister Petra Buzkova, just 39, remains one of the most recognised Czech politicians. At times her popularity was phenomenal and former President Vaclav Havel even suggested in the past she would make "an excellent president". But, politically, recent years have been less kind. And, when Ms Buzkova announced on Monday she would be bowing out, it didn't come wholly as a surprise.

Petra Buzkova, photo: CTKPetra Buzkova, photo: CTK Petra Buzkova has long enjoyed being the "First Lady" of Czech politics. In the heady days following the fall of communism she joined the Social Democrats in her early 20s and a few years later, by 1997, she had become one of the most popular politicians on the Czech scene. Then, polls suggested she enjoyed the sympathies of just under 70 percent of the population, while most politicians' numbers hovered at around 50 percent or less. Earlier I spoke with political analyst Vaclav Zak and asked him to describe Buzkova's mystique:

"Ms Buzkova was one of the few ladies active in Czech politics, that was one part of the success, the second was they she was very pretty, and the third was that was a very courageous politician and she wasn't afraid to say loudly what she considered was right for her party. "

Ms Buzkova's outspokenness saw her clash with various political opponents even within her party, including party chairman and then-prime minister, Milos Zeman, also never one to mince his words. Says Vaclav Zak, Buzkova's willingness to challenge Zeman's decisions made her a natural target for his ire. He returned the favour in a tell-all book last year titled "Mistakes I Made in Politics".

Petra Buzkova and Milos Zeman, photo: CTKPetra Buzkova and Milos Zeman, photo: CTK "The book written by Milos Zeman was unusually rude and really nasty: what he wrote about Ms Buzkova and what he had to say might have contributed to her decision to leave politics. He really slammed Ms Buzkova about her sexual life and the part it played in politics, quoting another member of the Social Democratic party. But, really it was really nasty, and she was very angry. I think she was right."

But looking back indisputably the most challenging period in Buzkova's career will have been her time as Education Minister - a post she took up in 2002 and still holds. Ever since, her public support has steadily dropped, even as she and her office grappled with needed reforms. Not all reforms passed were greeted favourably, some parents and even teachers criticising, for example, limits to the number of high schools to which students could apply, others accusing Buzkova of trying to keep schools under too tight a political wrap.

By contrast, Vaclav Zak says she wasn't in an easy position: he thinks on the whole she did rather well.

"I think she was not unsuccessful, salaries of teachers went up. We have a new law on grammar schools and secondary schools, a new law on universities. The problem with universities now is that there is a strategic decision to be made whether people should contribute to education or whether it should be seen as public expenditure. It's a political question, not depending only on the Ministry of Education."

Petra Buzkova has said she would like to see her final year at the ministry out, before heading for the private sector, and her name has already been mentioned in connection with a managerial position at Skoda auto. Perhaps there she'll be able to recover lost élan. For the first time in sixteen years she will be out of the public eye.