It has been just over a month since Jiri Paroubek was appointed prime minister, the third person to head the Czech government within a year. While Vladimir Spidla stepped down after the failure of the governing Social Democrats in European elections last year, his successor Stanislav Gross was forced to resign a few weeks ago due to questions over his personal finances. Now Jiri Paroubek has come in, and he has about a year to save the government's and in particular the Social Democrats' flagging fortunes before the next parliamentary elections.
A year ago he was a little known regional politician - one of several deputies to the mayor of Prague. Now he is leading the government and seems to be doing so with a surprising confidence. In the government of Stanislav Gross he was made minister for regional development. When Mr. Gross stepped down Jiri Paroubek was not the first person to be offered the prime minister's post. He was suggested only when other alternatives failed. But since he took over at the helm his star has started to rise.
Who is Jiri Paroubek? Where has he come from and what are his ambitions? Will he be able to save the Social Democrats from total decline?
Under communism Jiri Paroubek was manager of the state owned company RAJ - at the time a major player in the catering business. Paroubeks's critics argue that in communist Czechoslovakia the network of restaurants was a non-transparent environment ideal for deception and fraud.
Says former Mayor of Prague Jan Kasl (currently the leader of the non-parliamentary European Democrats) who knows Jiri Paroubek quite well from the time when Kasl was mayor. But he says he appreciates Paroubek's pragmatic approach to problems and gives him better odds to survive than his two predecessors.
"Jiri Paroubek is a man of pragmatic solutions. He is a man of compromise; he is a man who for the first time in the modern history of Prague became part of the executive power at the town hall as a member of the Social Democratic Party."
"In comparison with his two predecessors, I think he has the biggest chance to be a successful politician. He is pragmatic enough, he is able to make a compromise with any 'devil' he will need to. So he can make a great coalition with the Civic Democrats, he is able to offer cooperation to communists. He has no prejudice, he has no limits negotiation."
Also Political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova confirms that Jiri Paroubek differs from his two predecessors Vladimir Spidla and Stanislav Gross.
"I suppose that he is more experienced than Stanislav Gross. He is older; he has greater authority inside the political party. Compared to Vladimir Spidla, Jiri Paroubek is able to communicate better with the MPs in the Parliament. He is able to communicate with the public on a sort of deeper level. Spidla was a politician who didn't like to speak to the public."
On the other hand, Jiri Paroubek is all but a charismatic politician. The tabloid media have criticized his fashion style and also mocked the appearance of his wife, who has shown little interest in fashion or public life. But Vladimira Dvorakova does not think his image makes a big difference in the public eye.
"He is not a charismatic leader. But maybe people are waiting for someone who will be pragmatic, who will be able to solve the problems, who will be able to find the compromises, and not for a superstar. He is not a superstar in any case. But I think he can somehow make the credibility of his party higher than it was before - because of his experience and because of his pragmatism in politics."
Also Jan Kasl sees Jiri Paroubek's pragmatism as his great potential.
"Paroubek is a man who is showing different performance, different activity, a different face. He is a bit of apparatchik - nomenklatura man. He looks like the old guys. But as he is quite energetic, he is a man of strong words, he may persuade the people that he is the right man. I am nearly sure that he may be the leader of Social Democrats. Paroubek is ready to talk on one side to Communists, on the other side to Civic Democrats."
"I think he can do that. I would not consider it to be very surprising. In fact if you have only five political parties in the Parliament you need someone to collaborate with, there is not much choice."
"On the other hand, it will also depend on the Communist Party; what would be the demands, whether there would be some blackmailing or not, what would be the changes in the style. There are, I would say, deep discussions inside the Communist Party itself such as coping with the past, what to say to the public, whether to change the style...."
Says political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova.
Another crucial question is whether Jiri Paroubek can get support of his own deeply divided party. Currently the leader of the Social Democrats is still former Prime Minister Stanislav Gross. So will Jiri Paroubek replace Mr. Gross at the helm of the party? Social Democatic MP Jan Mladek points out that the situation is far from certain and that theoretically the party can have two men at its head.
"Mr. Gross is currently the chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party. The word leader is usually used for someone who is a leader during the election period. It is discussed at the moment whether it would be useful to have Mr. Gross as the leader for next election. There are some doubts and there is a discussion that this role could be taken over by Mr. Paroubek. But it doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Gross is gone as the chairman of the party."
The rise of popularity of Jiri Paroubek is probably also caused by the fact that he came to the post of prime minister as a very little known politician and nobody expected too much of him. Now some Social Democrats hope that he could be just the person to save the party from decline.
On the other hand, nobody can make miracles. Polls estimate support for the Social Democrats at only around 11 percent, around a third of the figure in the last election, whereas the opposition Civic Democrats are currently flying high in all the opinion polls. In this situation it will be almost impossible for Mr. Paroubek to avert defeat in the general election next year.
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