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ODS Could Be on Comeback Trail, and Klaus May Be Left in the Dust

For the first time since December 1997 the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) is showing signs of a comeback. The announcement by Evzen Tosenovsky, governor of the North Moravian-Silesian region, that he will announce his candidacy for the post of ODS chairman at the party's congress in December, ends a five-year period during which the ODS became a political monolith totally dominated by Vaclav Klaus.

Klaus, who founded the party in 1991, has always been the party's most prominent politician. However, until November 1997 when a group of ODS leaders revolted against him, he allowed for a degree of internal democracy and competition.

Following the revolt, triggered by a scandal involving party finances, Klaus moved to eradicate any opposition from the party. At a party congress in December 1997, he defeated Jan Ruml in the battle for the post of ODS chairman and drummed Ruml and a number of other prominent ODS politicians who opposed him out of the party. Most of those politicians eventually founded a party of their own—the Union of Freedom.

In the six months that followed, Klaus showed why it is a mistake to underestimate his political skills. By portraying himself as a victim of a far-reaching conspiracy, involving not only his former party colleagues, but also former coalition partners in the government he had headed as well as President Vaclav Havel, he managed to resurrect himself politically and, at the same time, make ODS again a formidable political force. ODS was able to win some 28 percent of the popular vote in the early elections in June 1998, finishing second after the Social Democrats (CSSD).

Klaus then proved his political mastery again by luring his biggest opponent, CSSD leader Milos Zeman, into signing a so-called opposition agreement, under which CSSD was allowed to form a minority government in exchange for giving the ODS high posts in the Parliament. Under the opposition agreement, Klaus was elected chairman of the Parliament's Lower Chamber.

During the opposition agreement period Klaus surrounded himself in ODS leadership with politicians who could be best described as his political clones. The party gradually became a rigid monolith in which no dissenting voices were tolerated. At party congresses, no ODS politician dared to challenge Klaus for the post of ODS chairman.

A widening gap

At the same time, Klaus, facing no opposition, was able to transform the formerly liberal, pro-European party into an increasingly conservative, nationalistic and euroskeptic political group. In doing so, he created a gap between the official views of the party, as represented by himself, and the ODS's traditional electorate, which is overwhelmingly in favor of the Czech Republic's membership in the EU.

During the electoral campaign prior to the June 2002 elections, Klaus and other ODS leaders tried to exploit nationalist, anti-EU, at times even xenophobic themes that resembled the agenda of Austrian populist leader Jorg Haider. The electoral campaign was entirely based on Klaus himself, and the absence of other charismatic leaders proved to be one of the ODS's greatest deficits.

By allowing himself to be so strongly identified with ODS's possible success or failure, Klaus at long last made a political mistake that he may not be able to correct. The defeat of ODS in the election was his personal defeat.

The poor electoral showing that sent the ODS into the opposition finally prompted some ODS politicians to demand that their party leadership be revamped. Klaus managed to fend off calls for an early congress, clearly hoping that the ODS will do better in the municipal and Senate elections in November, which could give him a new lease on life. However, he had to agree that at the congress in December he and other ODS leaders would give up their posts and hold an open contest for a new ODS leadership.

Some dissenting voices have come from the Czech Republic's 14 regions, the new administrative units into which the country was divided two years ago. Ironically, the country's decentralization, which Klaus has vehemently opposed, may in the end prove to be the best chance for ODS to revive itself.

Regional dissent

In the regional elections in the year 2000, ODS did very well. It won in seven of the 13 contested regions. Given the fact that it already controlled city council in Prague, which is considered a separate region but did not hold elections in the year 2000, ODS has been a dominant player on the regional level.

Klaus has at times been openly hostile toward his own party's regional governors, as he has felt that successful governors can gradually build their own power bases that he and other leaders of the ODS will not be able to control. Tosenovsky, who earned high marks as the mayor of Ostrava during the 1997 floods, is the most prominent of those regional leaders. However, charismatic and competent regional leaders have also emerged in Southern Bohemia (Jan Zahradnik), Central Bohemia (Petr Bendl), the Liberec region (Pavel Pavlik), and Western Bohemia (Petr Zimmermann). Some of them played a prominent role in the recent floods, which burnished their reputations.

The fact that the challenge to Klaus comes from a regional leader such as Tosenovsky is important not only because regional leaders have their own power bases. It is significant also because all of the regional leaders have a solid record of concrete achievements. They represent a new generation of politicians, who were not, owing to various circumstances, catapulted into prominent party positions but who have worked hard to make their way up through the ranks. They also do not base their standing in the party on being close to Klaus.

Since all of the current ODS leaders are Klaus' political creations, the December party congress is likely to turn not only into a battle between Klaus and Tosenovsky but between the upcoming regional leaders and Klaus' followers. Should the new generation of politicians win, ODS may be able to go back to its liberal roots and unite the political right in the country. If Klaus manages to use his formidable political skills to win one more time, the political right will remain fragmented. In fact, in such a case, it is quite likely that a new center-right party will emerge and attract voters for whom the ultra-conservative ODS under Klaus' leadership will not be acceptable.

Prague Business Journal - 30. 9. 2002