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Hojdar Defection One Symptom of Governing Coalition's Ill Health

MP Josef Hojdar’s defection from the Social Democrats (ČSSD) party caucus just before the first parliamentary vote on the Coalition’s public finance reform package speaks volumes about the volatile situation within the ranks of the strongest ruling party.

Not only does ČSSD Chairman Vladimir Špidla not have the party under control; at this point it seems that no prominent ČSSD politician could at this point easily consolidate his or her hold on the unruly political grouping.

There are multiple causes for this situation. Perhaps the most important is the fact that the ČSSD is actually a complex conglomerate of various smaller parties that merged with the Social Democrats in the mid-1990s. The ČSSD, which itself had been forcibly merged with the Communist Party in 1948, was revived immediately after the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. However, for several years it did not play a major role in Czech politics, as leftist voters’ allegiances were divided among several groups with socialist leanings.

Eventually those groups—for example, the Agrarian Party, the Liberal and Social Union, or the Democratic Labor Party—merged with the ČSSD. It was at that time Milos Zeman was elected the chairman of the party. Zeman turned out to be a skilled politician under whose leadership the ČSSD began quickly to gain in popularity.

Paradoxically, many problems that the ČSSD faces today can be traced back to Zeman’s quick success. The party never had a chance to consolidate and search for its own identity; rather, it continued to exist as several ideologically diverse groups in one. Zeman’s authoritarian style of leadership helped to keep differences hidden.

Divided we stand

Another important factor that helped to blunt possible conflicts was that in 1998 the ČSSD won the election and, subsequently, was able to form a one-party government with the help of its biggest rival, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Both parties shared power during the next four years under the so-called opposition agreement, which allowed the ČSSD to govern in exchange for giving the ODS high posts in the parliament and offering other spoils of power.

The opposition agreement changed to some extent the way in which the party was seen by political analysts. In other words, many observers contended that the main division in the party was between those who are in favor of the opposition agreement and those who would like to do away with it.

Špidla was one of the top ČSSD politicians who turned against the opposition agreement, once Milos Zeman had stepped down as party leader in the year 2001. In fact, Špidla’s open opposition to any further cooperation with the ODS helped the party to win the last year’s parliamentary elections. As a prime minister, however, he turned out to be a much weaker political leader than Zeman.

After the elections, his leadership was quickly challenged by those politicians who would have preferred the opposition agreement to continue. Many of them preferred cooperating with the ODS simply because it had brought them various economic advantages; they saw Špidla as challenging their privileges, especially when he began to talk about the need to fight clientelism and corruption.

When the advocates of the opposition agreement, often described as “Zemanites,” failed to keep it in place, they attempted to bring Zeman back into the mainstream politics as the Czech president. Špidla was able to bloc Zeman’s election, but was unable to prevent his opponents from banding together with the Communists and the Civic Democrats to elect former ODS Chairman Vaclav Klaus to the presidency.

A Pyrrhic victory

Špidla was able to recover from this political defeat to some extent by successfully defending his position at the ČSSD congress at the end of March. However, opposition against him has continued and has taken on different forms.

Most followers of Zeman have abandoned their arguments about the need for a strong leader as well as the need for cooperating in the government with a strong partner, such as the ODS, rather than the “unpredictable” small parties, such the Freedom Union and the Christian Democrats that Špidla had chosen as his coalition partners.

When the Špidla government presented its reforms of public finances, many of his opponents began to argue from ideological standpoints. While some criticism was clearly utilitarian, as it came from the very same people who had been trying to get rid of Špidla earlier, some was generated by real ideological differences that can be traced back to the early 1990s. It is apparent, in particular, that there is a very strong leftist wing in the ČSSD whose followers not only strongly oppose any cuts in welfare benefits and budget expenditures, but would also not mind a closer cooperation with the Communist Party.

Which brings us back to Mr. Hojdar, who left the ČSSD caucus just hours before the discussion of the reform package started, and is clearly a member of the far-left lobby within the ČSSD. In 2001, he organized a revolt in the North Bohemian party organization against its then-chairwoman, Marie Souckova, who is now Špidla’s Health Minister. Souckova was forced out because she was opposed to cooperating with the Communist Party.

He justified his defection from the ČSSD caucus by saying he could not agree with some aspects of current ČSSD policies, including the public finance reform. However, given both his business activities and his leftist leanings (and good relations with the Communists), it is not all clear what the real causes of his acts are. It is clear, however, that the ČSSD has a problem. Hojdar is by far not the only politician in the ČSSD who has ideological problems with the current party leadership. If the Špidla government collapsed as a result of an internal ČSSD revolt, the party could easily find itself in turmoil. It is internally still very heterogeneous, and unless a leader as strong as Zeman emerged to hold it together, it could easily split.

That would leave the country in turmoil as well. It would not, after all, be very easy to form a new government. Triggering early elections is a very difficult business under the Czech Constitution. And forming a viable ruling coalition on the basis of last year’s electoral results would be very difficult exactly because any attempts to cooperate with the Communists, on the one hand, or the ODS, on the other hand, could split the disunited ČSSD.

Prague Business Journal - 28. 7. 2003