Czech Political Crisis will Strengthen the Role of the Regions
The Regions and Klaus
Early December saw a free-for-all among leading members of ODS to gain support at the regional level of the party. Much of the party elite in the central ODS organs was aligned against Klaus, and Klaus had to develop his backing on the regional level. Although Klaus had been the very definition of centralism while in office, it is the regional level of ODS which saved him from complete political death at the hands of his enemies at the party's centre. Have recent events made both sides more aware of the regions' importance?
After the financial affair was out in the open at the end of November, the sides were clearly drawn between Klaus on the one hand and his opponents within ODS on the other. Both sides looked forward to the extraordinary ODS conference in Podlbrady on 14th December which would decide the leadership of the party and determine the future of what could be called East-Central Europe's most successful party in the transition era. The delegates for that conference would come from all across the Republic, so all sides immediately set out to tally their support at the regional level.
Inside AgainstThe forces arrayed against Klaus were to be found mostly in the centre and at the top of the party elite. The ODS parliamentary caucus, for example, took an early position against him (1). Klaus was supposedly keeping a list of which representatives supported him and which did not (2), but it was clear to everyone who the anti-Klaus ringleaders were. His primary rivals were leaders in the ODS elite: Pilip, Ruml and Vodička. Former Education Minister and then Finance Minister Ivan Pilip had been the Chairman of the separate Christian Democratic Party (KDS) which only merged fully with ODS after the 1992 elections, and Pilip was a Deputy Chairman of ODS last December. Jan Ruml, a former dissident, resigned his position as interior minister earlier in the year. A member of the Central ODS Executive Committee, Jindxich Vodihka was labour minister in the 1992-96 government, minister without portfolio after the 1996 elections and interior minister after Ruml resigned (3). These were members of the highest party elite.
Other party heavyweights lined up against Klaus at the Podlbrady conference itself. Outgoing Minister of Health and Deputy Chairman of ODS Jan Strask} gave his support to Ruml (4). Former Speaker of Parliament for ODS Milan Uhde strongly attacked Klaus at that conference (5). Members of the ODS Parliamentary caucus such as Jan Černý complained that they were kept in the dark about their own government's policy too often (6). The "grey eminence" and suspected mastermind behind Klaus' downfall former Foreign Minister Zieleniec was not invited to the Podlbrady conference even as a guest although he was a co-founder of ODS (7). Thus most of Klaus' principle rivals came from within the upper echelons of the party.
Outside ForBelow the highest echelons of ODS, it is true to say that the regional situation in early December was initially rather fluid and chaotic. Early on in the crisis, the ODS split was causing friction within regional party organisations and dividing local ODS associations against each other. An example of the confusion comes from the West Bohemian regional ODS association where the local party associations in three towns within this region adopted completely different positions on Klaus in the recent political upheaval. While the Karlovy Vary ODS Association was firmly behind Klaus, the Cheb Association supported Klaus' rivals within the party. At the same time, the ODS Association in Plzer remained on the fence, offering only very limited criticism of Klaus though accepting that some new faces at the top of the party might be necessary (8). In other parts of the country, whole regional organisations took a careful and politically pragmatic line in the earliest days. The North Moravian ODS Association on 29.12.97, for example, declared that it needed more information about the financial scandal before it could decide who to support (9).
Soon, however, the regional associations coalesced around Klaus (10). The earliest expressions of support for the embattled leader came even before Klaus folded his government. On 29th November, the North Bohemian Regional ODS Association, called on Klaus to simply replace the resigning Christian Democratic ministers in his government with ODS men no matter the consequences for democratic standards. The Central Bohemian ODS Association also chimed in on the same day in favour of Klaus, and both organisations strongly criticised Klaus' rivals in the party who had called for Klaus' resignation when the party chief was abroad (11).
Early support for Klaus often approached the radical not only in the above mentioned vote from North Bohemia which clearly took a page from 1948, but also in the street protests in Prague at which hundreds expressed their support for Klaus and bitterly denounced his ODS rivals. The Prague Regional ODS Leader and Prague Mayor Koukal also took part in those demonstrations and expressed the support of his region for Klaus (12). Of course, one must remember that these protests reflected only one side of the intra-party conflict and not the Czech public in general, which generally welcomed Klaus' demise (13).
As December progressed, more voices were heard from the regional level of the party, and it became ever more clear that Klaus was going to win the Podlbrady vote. He may have been ousted by an attack from within the top party elite, but his complete fall was prevented by those at the regional and local levels of the party. By the end of the first week of December, the majority of regional and local ODS organisations had made their choice: Klaus would return as ODS leader (14).
Despite the concerted attack from members of the central leadership Klaus was the choice of the regional ODS organs, and thus he was re-elected to lead the party on 14th December (15). Even though he consistently rejected his participation in the next government (16) and even though he has been one of the major stumbling blocks in the long devolution process, Klaus was saved by the regions.
A Lesson for the New PartiesThe new parties on the right realise that they definitely need to build both their regional credentials and their regional party base. The new Freedom Union that was formally established last weekend by the anti-Klaus renegades has emphasised greater regional autonomy. While it is too early to tell if strong devolution will become a central aspect of their platform, it is worth mentioning that the Freedom Union intends to form its internal party organisation on the basis of the new fourteen regions (17). Regional autonomy is also a major issue for the new Party of Conservative Agreement formed from splinters of ODA (the Civic Democratic Alliance) (18). After witnessing what saved Klaus and while looking for support in the regions, these new parties may naturally offer support for greater regional power to entice potential members in local government to their cause.
Altogether, the recent political crisis has probably given a greater push to regional autonomy in the Czech Republic than the recently passed law on the new regions.
1 Radio Prague 2.12.97.
2 Radio Prague 3.12.97, Chairman of the ODS Caucus Honajzer resigned his function over this issue.
3 Radio Prague 1.12.97; Radio Prague 14.12.97; Radio Prague 15.12.97; Mladá fronta DNES 11.6.96 Příloha "Volby '96" and Mladá fronta DNES 21.6.96.
4 Radio Prague 14.12.97.
5 Radio Prague 15.12.97. Though Klaus did have the support of Payne and Ivan Kočárník and of most of the Senators for ODS. Radio Prague 15.12.97 and Radio Prague 3.12.97.
6 See, for example, Jan Černý's comments at the Poděbrady conference in Radio Prague 14.12.97.
7 Radio Prague 15.12.97.
8 ČTK 1.12.97.
9 On-line Slovo, 29.12.97.
10 It must be mentioned that Klaus' strength at the regional level was clear to some of his opponents within the party even earlier. See Vodička's comments in Radio Prague 1.12.97 and Deputy Chairman of the South Moravian Regional Association of ODS Zdeněk Geist's in HTK 1.12.97. Vodihka announced at the same time that he would support Klaus' opponent in the leadership struggle and that if Klaus won, it would probably lead to the break-up of ODS - which is what happened. Geist is a close associate of Pilip and who was one who called early for Klaus' resignation.
11 On-line Slovo, 29.12.97.
12 Radio Prague 1.12.97, Mladá fronta DNES mimořádná příloha, 1.12.97.
13 75% of Czech citizens said they would welcome Klaus' departure from the political scene in a poll conducted by STEM and reported in Radio Prague 12.12.97.
14 Radio Prague, 6.12.98 and 8.12.97.
15 Radio Prague 15.12.97.
16 Radio Prague 30.11.97.
17 See the words of Zdeněk Geist at the founding conference of the Freedom Union in the Regionalist 19.1.98.
18 Regionalist 14.1.97