Czech PM Nečas plots defense of party leadership

The key test for the Czech premier is how many delegates and votes he can count on at a fractious post-election party congress

Martin Shabu 15.12.2011

Premiér Petr Nečas si pečlivě hlídá, aby v exekutivě byli především šéfové regionů s velkým počtem delegátů na stranickém kongresu. Mezi takové osobnosti patří Petr Bendl, Bohuslav Svoboda a Martin Kuba. foto: © ČTK, Česká poziceČeská pozice

Premiér Petr Nečas si pečlivě hlídá, aby v exekutivě byli především šéfové regionů s velkým počtem delegátů na stranickém kongresu. Mezi takové osobnosti patří Petr Bendl, Bohuslav Svoboda a Martin Kuba.

Survival appears to be the name of the game for Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) as he casts his eyes forward to Senate and regional elections next year. The vote looks like turning into a rout for his center-right party, with even the most optimistic pundits predicting that a gain of one regional governor, or hejtman, would be a major success.

When the search for scapegoats starts within the ODS after the elections, Nečas should be in position to turn for support to sympathetic party members in top posts in key regional party executives. Fearing a shake-up that might cause them to lose their positions and government connections, the key placemen should put their weight behind the premier and keep him in power.

That is the synthesis from three weeks of interviews with dozens of top ODS politicians and behind-the-scenes party movers and shakers carried out by Czech Position.  

The key test for Nečas is how many delegates and votes he can count on at a fractious post-election party congress. The regions carrying the most votes at last October’s meeting, which confirmed Nečas at the head of the party, are Prague (87 delegates), Central Bohemia (78), Moravia-Silesia (66), South Moravia (63), the Ústí region (43), and South Bohemia (42). The relative strengths of these regions are unlikely to change before the electoral contest.

The maths of the ODS party machine mean that if three of the strongest regions get together and are determined to unseat their leader, then his days are probably numbered. Central Bohemia, South Bohemia and Prague appeared in the recent past to be front candidates to lead moves to unseat Nečas and the site of an ongoing party battle. As regards the Central Bohemia and Prague regions, Nečas has already begun his fight back, but these regions are far from decided either way.

Nečas began the defense of his position during the spring coalition wobble which threatened to bring down the center-right coalition.

Nečas began the defense of his position during the spring coalition wobble that threatened to bring down the center-right coalition. The main move was to remove central Bohemia leading ODS light Petr Tluchoř, an ally of ex-prime minister and party chairman Mirek Topolánek, as head of the ODS party grouping in the lower house of parliament. The leadership of the group was passed to north Moravian politician Zbyňek Stanjura. (Within the party hierarchy, the lower house group leadership is seen as equivalent to a ministerial post with the holder taking part in coalition negotiations and in the top ODS party committee meetings).

After dealing with Tluchoř, Nečas turned to another disloyal Central Bohemia leader, former minister of agriculture Ivan Fuksa, and sacked him from the Cabinet. His replacement as minister was the leader of the regional party organization, Petr Bendl. Tluchoř and Fuksa later made a power grab for the regional party but failed, although Fuksa holds the key post of deputy regional chairman. He has also declared that he would like to go head to head with the current Social Democrat (ČSSD ) regional governor, David Rath, in a bid to win the position.

According to Czech Position’s information, Fuksa’s bid to become hejtman will be contested by the ODS mayor of Mladá Boleslav, Raduan Nwelati, a supporter of Bendl (and therefore also of Nečas). Who emerges as the frontman in Central Bohemia should be a lot clearer by the start of February.

Nečas’ most recent change to the line-up of his party’s ministers within the Cabinet was the surprise appointment of the South Bohemian regional leader Martin Kuba for the disgraced Martin Kocourek as head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MPO). Kuba is said to be closely linked to the regional ODS “godfather” Pavel Dlouhý. But according to Czech Position’s information, key towns — such as Pardubice and Plzeň as well as parts of the Ústí and Moravia regions — also took part in this deal to advance Kuba. Any rebellion against Nečas from South Bohemia can now be safely discounted.

‘Kuba controls the region.’

“From the prime minister’s point of view, this was logical. Michal Doktor [Kuba’s main rival for the ministerial position who also came from South Bohemia] could count on only one [regional party] vote in southern Bohemia, and that was his own. Kuba controls the region,” said a trustworthy source within the ODS who did not want to be named.

According to another top party member, Kuba’s installation was also the necessary precursor to the far reaching shake up of the Prague coalition governing city hall. Nečas backed Prague mayor Bohuslav Svoboda against part of the regional ODS party surrounding Tomáš Hrdlička. Svoboda pulled off his coup of switching the ruling coalition from ODS– ČSSD to ODS–TOP 09 behind the back of the leader of the ODS regional party, Boris Šťastný, who has since resigned as party leader. Without prior agreement from other regions, the Nečas-backed coup in the capital would not have been possible, Czech Position has learnt.

Without prior agreement from other regions, the Nečas-backed coup in the capital would not have been possible.

Since his victory, Svoboda  has expressed his ambition of becoming leader of the Prague ODS party but still faces formidable opposition from the entrenched influence of the party group surrounding Šťastný and Hrdlička. A rival to Svoboda for the coveted post could well be Environment Minister and former leader of the ODS in the Prague 6 district, Tomáš Chalupa (now the environment minister).

Some of those close to President Václav Klaus, for whom Chalupa and Šťastný are favorites, are also pushing his candidature, Czech Position has been told. Whether Nečas has really conquered Prague or just made a daring raid and been forced to retreat should be clear during January and the results from local district votes.

A contest of party strength which should have been a barometer of Nečas’ standing in Moravia and Silesia should have taken place this week but was cancelled because of the illness of one of the main contestants. It should now be run in January.

For the prime minister, the test will be to see how his ally David Sventa, close to the head of the ODS parliamentary group, Stanjura, fares. One key player in this battle could be former environment minister Pavel Drobil, who still carries considerable weight in party circles within the main city of Ostrava. He is still weighing up which way he will swing with an eye on the outcome of the ongoing machinations concerning alleged corruption at the Ministry of Environment’s State Fund for the Environment, which caused him to be sacked from the ministry. Drobil will no doubt be monitoring what support he gets from Nečas.

Aside from Stanjura, the prime minister will also rely on his close advisor and former industry ministry, Martin Říman, to rally the ODS forces in Moravia and Silesia to his side. According to Czech Position’s information, he should also be able to count on the lobbying efforts of the former ODS senator of Bruntál, Jiří Žák, who was elevated in the spring to the position of deputy minister of transport.

Weak points

Nečas has not, however, been able to do much so far to mend his weak position in another key region, Ústí. According to internal information the party there is split. The prime minister has support from Litoměřice (the seat of Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra) and Teplice, where loyalist ODS senator Jaroslav Kubera is the main force. Most of the region is not behind Nečas.

The prime minister apparently toyed with the idea of replacing Vondra with the head of the Ústí ODS party, Jan Kubata, at the height of the ProMoPro scandal over inflated spending on the Czech EU presidency, which threatened to unseat the defense minister. Kubata’s name cropped up again when the industry ministry vacancy came up.

One indicator of how things are going in Ústí will be the participation or not of Vondra in the Senate elections. Vondra’s senatorial term runs out in the fall and the ODS are keen to win as many votes as possible in the face of a possible Social Democrat (ČSSD) landslide. For this purpose both Vondra and Kubera could be pluses.

South Moravia is the fiefdom of ODS deputy chairman Rudolf Blažek, who within the party is seen as a competent and witty performer. His major drawback is that he has a low profile given his relatively high party position. Blažek also clashed with Nečas last year and as a result had to quit his position on the supervisory board of state forestry company, Lesy ČR. The prime minister also holds it against Blažek that he supported the coalition with the left-of-center ČSSD that is now running Brno town hall.

One source of support for Nečas in the region is, according to Czech Position’s information, the head of the ODS in South Moravia, Jiří Kadrnka. Thanks to Nečas, Kadrnka was last year put on the board of state-controlled electricity company ČEZ. The deputy chairman of the party council and chairman of the ODS group in the Senate, Richard Svoboda, is another firm ally.

Nečas’ future support also depends to some extent on how he plays the selection of an ODS candidate to be president. Two candidates have already stepped forward: the deputy chairman of the Senate, Přemysl Sobotka, from the Liberec region, and the chairwoman of the lower house, Miroslava Němcová, from the Vysočina region. Liberec carries 27 votes and Vysočina 29 in ODS congress meetings.

‘Nečas may think that he had got it worked out but he hasn’t.’

Sobotka has traditionally dictated which way his region will swing, in the past moving it away from supporting former party leader Václava Klaus and later being the first to challenge ex-prime minister Topolánek to step down. Nečas could get the same sort of treatment following failed elections next year. According to Czech Position’s information, no deal has so far been sealed with Sobotka along the lines of support for his presidential bid in exchange for loyalty to the premier.

Miroslava Němcová has the merits of coming from a region that appears to lack the gray “godfathers” and opaque structures so present elsewhere in the party. She also appears to have little party influence over Nečas. In the internal poker game of ODS politics, the hand being held by the prime minister can be evaluated from different perspectives. “Nečas may think that he had got it worked out but he hasn’t,” commented one influencial ODS bigwig who is still playing a role in the game.