Stanislav Gross - the youngest prime minister in Europe

02-02-2005

Born in Prague in 1969, Czech Prime Minister Stanislav Gross trained briefly as a train driver before entering politics in the early 1990s after completing his military service. Since then he has enjoyed a spectacularly successful career, which resulted in him becoming the country's youngest ever premier last year at just 34 years of age.

Political scientist, Dr Jiri Pehe has monitored the development of Mr Gross's career and is not surprised at his phenomenal achievements.

"I would describe Stanislav Gross as a political animal. I think he is someone who has a great talent for politics. I think he has been successful mainly because of his great communication skills. He is a very capable communicator and he is able to deal with journalists and the media in general, and he can also handle his colleagues in his own party."

Stanislav Gross first made his mark in politics when he was elected chairman of the Young Social Democrats in 1990. He subsequently became a Social Democrat member of the Czech parliament in 1992.

His cherubic looks and much vaunted communication skills made him stand out from his parliamentary colleagues and saw his popularity ratings soar.

Stanislav Gross, photo: CTKStanislav Gross, photo: CTK He soon became known as the "crown prince" of the Social Democrats and was appointed to a number of senior posts within the party before becoming Minister of the Interior at just 30 years of age.

Despite his stunning rise through the ranks of the Social Democrat party, Stanislav Gross is not without his critics.

The journalist and political commentator Jan Urban thinks that Mr Gross's undoubted skills as a politician are undermined by a lack of clear political convictions:

"He has spent all his life in politics. He can pretend to be a right-winger or a left-winger according to the audience he is talking to. He is very skilled when it comes to party bargaining. He can accommodate and promise any group anything just to get their support."

Mr Urban feels that even after more than a decade in the public eye, the Czech electorate are none the wiser as to where Stanislav Gross actually stands on a number of issues:

"Thanks to the poor quality of Czech politics, he has never learned that political life has its moral and long-term aspects, as well as those of manipulation, good media skills, or entertaining and bargaining qualities. He hasn't learned that although you have to be flexible in politics, you also have to stand for some principles."

Jiri Pehe acknowledges that Mr Gross does not always present a clear outline of his policies and programmes for government.

"Because he entered politics so young, he has very skilfully learned what I would call the 'technology of power.' He is a true master in this area, but at the same time, in my opinion, he occasionally puts the technology of power too high on his list of priorities and doesn't always concern himself with the contents of his policies and things that have more to do with principles."

Just a few weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Mr Gross's appointment of Pavel Pribyl as head of the Office of the Government caused a major headache for his coalition administration. It transpired that during the communist era Mr Pribyl had been in charge of a police unit which had beaten up pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989. Mr Pribyl subsequently resigned and the whole affair was a major embarrassment to Mr Gross just a few weeks after becoming prime minister.

It wasn't the first time Mr Gross had made a controversial appointment to a senior position in government. Eyebrows had been raised during his time as Minister of the Interior when he made a former Communist prison guard chairman of the Social Democrat Party deputies group.

Jiri PeheJiri Pehe Jiri Pehe admits that such incidents do cast doubt on Mr Gross's judgement.

"He is really not very good at choosing the right people to surround himself with. This may be partly caused by the fact that Mr Gross was really very young when the communist regime ended and so he does not have the same kind of sensibilities that older people have about 'who is who' and whom he shouldn't associate himself with."

Many saw Stanislav Gross's youth as an asset, as he set the somewhat staid world of Czech politics alight during his rise to power. But Dr Pehe believes his age is now something of a stumbling block for him as he tries to convince the electorate of his credentials for being the country's leader:

"I think that now he has become prime minister, his youth is seen as a burden. Unfortunately for him he comes across as a really youthful person. He has an angelic, almost-childlike face and that is something that people do not really associate with the post of prime minister. I think that that has hurt him. If I were his image-maker I would certainly recommend that he grow a beard or something like that. But obviously that is up to Mr Gross himself. Moreover, I'm not entirely sure if he can even grow a beard."

Since becoming prime minister, Stanislav Gross has also been hampered by deep divisions within his party, which is split over how to clearly define its social democrat programme. Mr Gross finds himself at odds with traditionalist elements in his party opposed to his tentative plans to overhaul the Czech Republic's rather unwieldy social security system.

Stanislav Gross, photo: CTKStanislav Gross, photo: CTK Unfortunately for Mr Gross, his government's slender one-seat majority in Parliament means that he cannot take a strong stance against his party opponents, as he needs their votes to stay in power.

As a result, he has been performing a hazardous juggling act between the opposing factions within his party.

This has naturally sent a mixed signal out to voters and the party performed disastrously in Senate and local council elections last year.

Mr Gross has also been damaged by revelations about his time as Interior Minister, when he is alleged to have set up an illegal police unit to spy on political opponents. Another scandal over the murky origin of the money he used to buy his luxury apartment in Prague has further undermined his credibility among Czech voters.

Opinion polls indicate that the right-wing Civic Democrat party, galvanized by eight years in opposition, are now surging ahead of Mr Gross's Social Democrats. He has also seen some of its supporters switch allegiance to the Communist Party as a result of fears that he might seek to reform the welfare state.

All of this seems to suggest that Mr Gross could suffer a humiliating defeat at the next general election.

Jiri Pehe thinks that even if this were to happen, it need not spell the end of Stanislav Gross's political career:

"I think that in some ways a defeat in the next election would be good for Mr Gross, because it would make it easier for him to deal with the opposition in his party. There's a group of people in the party and they have caused a lot of damage to the party by basically sabotaging their own government and creating conflicts all the time. Mr Gross is not able to deal with them effectively when the party is in power because he needs them - he needs their support in the parliament and so on. So obviously if he wants to purge the party and get rid of such people, being in the opposition would be good for him in some ways. There is, however, the question as to whether a resounding defeat in the elections would not signal his end as well, because of course it could be used against him."

Jan Urban is not so sure that Stanislav Gross can survive a heavy election defeat, but does think it could be a defining moment in his spectacular political career:

"I'm curious to see how he responds. So far he has never lost. He doesn't have the guts to stand firm and to go through this 'valley of death' to reform the party. He is an escape artist. He never fights real battles. He always runs away from a fight. I don't see him as the saviour of the [Social Democrat] party. Nevertheless, his main quality for continuing is that the Social Democrats in the Czech context don't have anyone else."

02-02-2005