The Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla announced his resignation on Saturday afternoon with an almost eerie calm. The agonies of his party, which has been the driving political force in the country for the last six years have been only too evident ever since their spectacular collapse in the European elections. But Saturday's resignation of Vladimir Spidla both as Prime Minister and party leader came as a shock.
Most observers and politicians had assumed that he would cling on to power, albeit by a thin thread. But it was clear from the outset that he was taking a risk. He decided to put his fate into the hands of his party at a time when the Social Democrats were deeply divided, and loyalties were extremely hard to gauge. On Saturday party representatives both from Prague and the regions met, and they came just short of the three fifths majority needed to oust Mr Spidla from his post as party leader. At this stage it was widely expected that he would decide to hang on at the helm of both the party and the country.
But it was hardly a vote of confidence. With the words, "If I can't count on the support of my own party, how can I be prime minister?" Mr Spidla announced his resignation, both as party leader and Prime Minister. The party reins have now passed into the hands of the youthful deputy Social Democrat leader Stanislav Gross. Mr Gross is one of the country's most popular politicians, and has recently openly criticized Mr Spidla's leadership style, but he has so far stood back from anything more than ministerial responsibilities. He looked openly nervous as events unfolded, while Mr Spidla seemed almost relieved that it was all over, showing the kind of quiet phlegmatism, that many of his critics say is precisely what has made him a weak leader.
We'll be looking a bit closer at Vladimir Spidla and his career a little further on in the programme, but first we'll turn to the future. The government will officially resign on Wednesday, and then the immediate future will be in the hands of President Vaclav Klaus.
Just before leaving for the NATO summit in Istanbul on Sunday, Mr Klaus said that as soon as the government formally resigned he would launch talks with Stanislav Gross as well as the leader of the junior coalition Christian Democrats and the strongest opposition force the Civic Democrats - the party that Mr Klaus himself once led - on the possibilities of putting together a new government. Pavla Horakova has been looking at the options.
Thanks, David. It seems that the most likely scenario is that President Klaus will appoint Stanislav Gross, the acting chairman of the Social Democrats to form a new cabinet - because the Social Democrats are still the strongest party in parliament. But whether Stanislav Gross is capable of putting together a cabinet that would get a vote of confidence in the lower house remains a question. For some analysis I spoke to political commentator Vladimira Dvorakova.
"Well, this is something that no one is able to say now. I think informal negotiations will start tomorrow but I think Mr Gross is waiting for being appointed to start official negotiations because we don't know what will be the support of some other political parties - whether they will be able to give some support to the newly formed government. It is probable that it will be a minority Social Democrat cabinet or a minority coalition government of the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.
"The cabinet needs to have a vote of the majority of the members who are present in the house at the moment of voting. So it can happen that a part of the members of the opposition leaves the house before voting so there can be a majority. It will depend on the negotiations but nowadays we cannot be sure."
Mr Gross is now on the lookout for a new coalition. He said he favoured a minority government of the Social and Christian Democrats. For that he would need not only the votes of the few remaining members of the liberal Freedom Union, that was part of the previous coalition, but also some opposition votes. He said he didn't want those to be communist votes - but political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova says it is not that simple.
"Mr Gross said that he didn't want the support of the Communists but it's complicated because he somehow narrowed the space for negotiations by this proclamation. So I think that maybe there will be some negotiations after all because there is no probability that the Communists would become part of the cabinet, this cannot happened. But there can be negotiations on some form of support for the formation of the cabinet."
The leader of the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, Mirek Topolanek, said he was afraid Mr Gross would be less likely to distance himself from the Communists than the outgoing Prime Minister, Vladimir Spidla, who always refused to co-operate with them. But Mr Gross assured Mr Topolanek that he would do his utmost to prevent the Communists from becoming the strongest left wing party in this country.
Pavla, you mentioned the Civic Democrats: they are currently leading in opinion polls, with an estimated 40 percent of voter support - are they trying to benefit from the situation somehow?
Yes, they are certainly trying to make the most of it. Mr Topolanek said his party, which is riding on a wave of popular support would only be willing support a caretaker government which would rule until the holding of early elections in the middle of next year. But would an early election be a good idea - I asked Vladimira Dvorakova.
"Well, I think it is a good idea for the Civic Democrats (ODS) because they suppose that this cabinet will work for the next year and they expect pre-term election in June 2005. In fact this could mean that the Social Democrats would finish all the reforms but will have not the other year to show whether the reform was successful. So they will do the things that are not popular with the public and after they finish that the Civic Democrats will ask for pre-term elections. This is a strategy that for the Civic Democrats is probably very good but I'm not sure whether it is also good for the Social Democrats. Maybe there can be a probability that they would give their support - the vote of confidence - to Mr Gross's cabinet only if he agrees on this pre-term election. And this can happen."
Now, Pavla, the government of Prime Minister Spidla is the first cabinet to fall as a result of the European Parliament elections two weeks ago...
Yes, the Social Democrats were humiliated in the elections, gaining just two seats out of 24 available, but on the other hand, almost all governing parties across Europe did badly in the election. In this case, the poor showing in the European polls acted as a catalyst for processes inside the Social Democrat party that were probably inevitable. Again, political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova.
"I think there is no reason why European election should decide about internal questions. That interpretation is really simplifying the situation. The results of the election that were very bad for the Social Democrats escalated the conflict that was there for a long time. In fact there were such strong animosities inside the party that after all there was no other solution but for Mr Spidla to resign. So it's a problem of an internal crisis of the Social Democrats and the European election and the bad results only somehow escalated the conflict."
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