Vladimir Spidla, the newly-elected chairman of the centre-left Social Democrats, told the party congress at the weekend that his main priority was getting the Czech Republic ready for membership of the European Union. But Mr Spidla stressed that his party was also intent on developing a welfare state - protecting the less well-off in society, those people who - as he put it - didn't have access to the Internet and weren't interesting enough to appear on CNN. Mr Spidla's words appear to confirm his efforts to lead the party more to the left of the political spectrum. Mr Spidla, deputy premier and Labour and Social Affairs Minister, was elected for a two-year term with more than 87 percent of the vote.
Milos Zeman, who led the party for eight years, will stay on as Prime Minister until the elections next year, after which he will retire from active politics. Vladimir Spidla will lead the Social Democrats into the 2002 general elections, which, he told delegates, he was convinced his party would win. The Social Democrats, he said, had stopped the decline of the Czech Republic, but added that the party needed one more term to get the country into shape.
The Social Democrat leaders made it clear this weekend that they would begin looking for coalition partners - if necessary - only after the 2002 elections. The Social Democrat government only exists thanks to a power-sharing pact with the leading opposition party, the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, signed after the inconclusive 1998 elections. The pact - dubbed the 'Opposition Agreement' - will probably survive until 2002 - but with the left-wing Mr Spidla at the helm, another deal with the Civic Democrats seems highly unlikely.
Well, the congress marked the end of a very important era in the history of the Social Democratic Party. This is how Foreign Minister Jan Kavan evaluated Mr Zeman's role in that period for Radio Prague:
"I think it was a very successful leadership. He brought the party over the eight years from a party of 6-6.5 percent, i.e. from a party on the fringe of the domestic political scene all the way to government and helped to arrange, through the opposition agreement, that we were able to form the first Social Democratic government in the entire history of the party. He also promised to take the country out of the crisis which we were not responsible for and which we have inherited and the macro-economic figures of the last few months show that he managed to do that. So from that point of view he is leaving the party now and the government next year with all of his promises fulfilled. Now, his style of leadership, of a strong, charismatic leader, very sure of himself, with a very specific personal imprint, that, I think will go for a long time. The prime minister had a very tense and difficult relationship with the media, which, unfortunately, was projected in the image of the government's successes, which did not receive the kind of publicity which they deserved."
As you've just heard, Mr Zeman steps down as party leader, but stays on as Prime Minister. Some have said this unusual situation will lead to conflict between Prime Minister Zeman and party leader Spidla. Mr Kavan, however, said he did not share this view:
"They can work very well, there is a clear division of labor. In fact, I am very happy to underline that, unlike in previous regimes, the party is not identified with the state. There will be close cooperation, because the party leader is, at the same time, first deputy prime minister and therefore one of the closest collaborators in the government with the prime minister. I don't see a problem, at all."
Mr Kavan said there will, however, be a marked change in the style of party leadership.
"His style of leadership, of a strong, charismatic leader, very sure of himself, with a very strong personal imprint, that, I think, will go, and go for a long time. Mr Spidla is not that type of leader and I hope that Mr Spidla will succeed in what he promised here, to create a more team leadership, which will not be dependant on a strong charismatic leader and I hope that he will have a better relationship with the medias."
Mr Spidla's leadership has strong support from party members outside of Prague. Lubos Zaoralek is a Social Democrat Member of Parliament for Northern Moravia:
"I can confirm that Mr Spidla has this very broad support. Yes, it seems to me that the Congress was able to create a representative new leadership and also that now we created a consensus between the regions and I hope that we are strong enough to manage all tasks which are now, in this year before the Social Democratic Party."
The delegates were convinced that the new leadership would not change the policy of the Social Democratic Party. Eva Novakova was a delegate from Prague.
"The chairman of the party will be different, but I think that the whole policy will be the same. I think that they will be able to talk to each other and everything will be alright, I am sure. And maybe the media will like our new chairman more than our old chairman, Mr Zeman."
And those expected changes in style would, the delegates hoped, bring a change in the public's image of the party. Michaela Marxova-Tomanova bases that belief on her own experience.
"This is very important, that the new leader is a very intelligent and cultivated person and as far as I know, among my friends, who never, ever voted for the CSSD, they told me that if we have Mr Spidla as the head of the party, they are going to vote for him."
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