Will new Freedom Union leader help to strengthen party?

The junior governing coalition partner, the Freedom Union, made two important decisions over the weekend. During its party conference in the Moravian capital of Brno, it elected Petr Mares as its new leader and voted to stay in the ruling coalition with the senior Social Democrats and another small party, the Christian Democrats. But what chances does the party have to improve its standing during this electoral term? Dita Asiedu looks into the future of the Freedom Union:

Hana Marvanova and Petr Mares, photo: CTKHana Marvanova and Petr Mares, photo: CTK A little under a year ago, it looked like the Freedom Union would fall apart. Its future did not look bright after receiving few votes in the parliamentary elections in June. It was dealt another blow a few days later when its leader Hana Marvanova resigned, dissatisfied with coalition talks. Now, Freedom Union representatives hope to start afresh with the election of Petr Mares. Replacing the rebellious Hana Marvanova and acting leader Ivan Pilip, Mr Mares believes he can lead the party into a more influential position both in cabinet and parliament. And while many do believe that he has what it takes to ensure the party a better future, others are not convinced that he has the personality to attract support among the public. Vladimira Dvorakova is a political analyst at the Prague School of Economics:

"Mr Mares is a well educated person. He was a university professor working in the fields of politics and history, so from this point of view he is a quite good professional. As far as the disadvantage is concerned, I would say that he lacks charisma. He is not really a leader who can have a strong impact on the broader public."

Over the weekend it was clearly visible that the Freedom Union's differing ideology and the compromises it has had to make in the cabinet have made some members unhappy with its partnership in the ruling coalition. There is one stream which believes that a better future would be if the Freedom Union were to join the opposition and use its independence to define its policy against that of the Social Democrats. An idea, however, that was ruled out at the party conference, after discussions resulted in an overwhelming majority of delegates voting to stay in the coalition.

"If there is any possibility for the Freedom Union to survive in the next several years and get into parliament in the next elections, the better chance for the Freedom Union is to be a member of the cabinet. It would be a totally unimportant member of the opposition there are stronger opposition parties in parliament. There is the ODS (Civic Democrats) which represents the right-wing stream and the Communists as the opposition to the cabinet from the left point of view."

With the ruling coalition having a slim majority in parliament - a mere 101 out of 200 MPs - the senior Social Democrats are dependent on the support of their junior coalition partners. Mr Mares hopes to use this to his party's advantage, pushing for rent deregulation as well as public finance and education reform - all party priorities:

"I'm not sure whether they have the chance to really put their own opinions through but I think they do have the chance to influence the final results, mainly in discussion on public financing. It's clear that it is necessary for something to be done with that and I think their opinion will somehow be considered. With some other opinions, such as paying university fees, I don't think they will be accepted by the Social Democrats. In the question of deregulation, it is also not so easy to do it although something will be done to enable a step-by-step rent deregulation".

Only three of the seventeen ministers, six of the eighty-one Senators, and ten of the 200 deputies are members of the Freedom Union. With such low representation, Mr Mares does not expect a miracle in his party's future. With the right leadership, however, meeting the party's goals could be possible. And if things should not work out, according to Mr Mares it will never be too late to leave the coalition.