After weeks of political horse-trading, Social Democrat party leader Stanislav Gross was officially appointed as Czech Prime Minister on Monday afternoon. At age 34, Mr Gross is now the youngest serving premier in Europe, and by far the youngest in Czech history.
Mr Gross was only 22 years old when he entered Parliament twelve years ago. Despite being embroiled in controversial business dealings over the years, the boyish-looking former locomotive technician, who has served as interior minister since 2000, has successfully portrayed himself to voters as a man of the people in a country where most politicians are viewed as self-serving businessmen.
With an approval rating of 54 percent, Mr Gross remains the most popular politician in the Czech Republic, aside from President Vaclav Klaus, the man who nominated him to the post.
But despite his common touch, with a one-seat majority in the 200-member lower house of Parliament, Mr Gross will have to work very hard to stay in office until the next general elections in mid-2006.
The prime minister-designate has collected signatures pledging support from 101 deputies from the ruling coalition of left-leaning Social Democrats, and their partners, the centre-right Christian Democrats and neo-liberal Freedom Union. Meanwhile, the main opposition Civic Democrats are riding high in public opinion polls and are pushing for early elections to capitalise on their advantage.
Mr Gross takes over the reins of government from fellow Social Democrat Vladimir Spidla, who was widely seen as an honest but ineffectual leader, and will lead the same three-party coalition as his predecessor with largely the same policy programme.
The "new-old" government led by Mr Gross is not expected to push through radical measures such as a funded pension system or the quick deregulation of rents, but the Cabinet's rough draft political agenda does call for a more progressive personal income tax structure. At the same time, the new government is considering making subsidised loans available to newlyweds, regardless of their income — Mr Gross reportedly said such measures were needed to win over young voters.
Populist measures aside, what may change radically is the composition of the Cabinet itself, as Prime Minister-designate Gross seeks to create a broader basis of support among the factions in the coalition and neutralise his most visible opponents. Of the 10 Social Democrat ministers, only four — the finance, education, labour and social affairs, and culture ministers — are thought to be certain to retain their posts, although Mr Gross has said changes would be merely "cosmetic."
The Cabinet list should be finalised by next week, along with the new government's policy programme, before Parliament holds a vote of confidence in Mr Gross's government in the latter half of August.
Martin Jahn, the head of the state foreign investment promotion agency CzechInvest, is a strong favourite to replace the current Minister of Industry and Trade. Analysts say that appointing a non-aligned "technocrat" like Mr Jahn would help calm the markets, which want a stable government and have not greeted the appointment of Mr Gross as prime minister with enthusiasm.
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