Tim Gosling in Prague -
Stanislav Gross, the Czech Republic's youngest ever prime minister, died on April 16 aged just 45, after losing a battle against a rare chronic disease.
Gross had once been seen as the Social Democratic Party's "crown prince", the most promising representative of its younger generation, but his premiership ended in a corruption scandal that is symbolic of the failure to clean up the country's murky and avaricious political establishment.
Gross had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, according to media reports. Having withdrawn from the public eye, he and his family had refused to speak about his illness. However, local press reported in March that Gross believed that he may have been poisoned during his time as PM. One doctor told media the claim was nonsense, amounting to little more than paranoia.
The Social Democrats (CSSD) marked his death via a curt statement and the response from Gross's erstwhile colleagues was low key. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said he had recently seen the former PM, while President Milos Zeman expressed condolences to the Gross family.
Such brevity reflects the fact that rarely has a politician who has risen to take over leadership of a party and a government so quickly disappointed the hopes that had been placed in him.
An interior minister at just 30, Gross served in the CSSD-led governments of both Zeman (2000-2002) and the following administration of Vladimir Spidla (2002-2004). He was both highly popular with the voters and a powerful and skillful operator behind the scenes.
Amid falling opinion poll ratings he mounted a coup against Spidla to take over as premier in July 2004, becoming Europe's youngest government leader at the time.
Coming to office just two months after the Czech Republic joined the EU to great fanfare, Gross was a symbol for the country's hopes of a bright future. His rise to the top was seen as a sign that the long dominance of Czech politics by Zeman and Vaclav Klaus of the rightwing ODS could be coming to an end.
However, he served less than a year, resigning in April 2005 when he could not satisfactorily explain the financing of his apartment and a business run by his wife.
The fall was so spectacular that he withdrew from politics the same year, aged just 35, afterwards becoming mysteriously rich through some opaque transactions.
With Gross having failed, Zeman and Klaus – who served two presidential terms before Zeman moved into Prague Castle in 2013 – have continued to loom over Czech politics, and only now is their dominance starting to wane.
Zeman continues to be a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Sobotka. Although his attempts to orchestrate a coup inside the party in the wake of the 2013 elections failed, he continues to try to provoke fights between the Social Democrats and its centrist partner Ano.
Many Czech voters have placed their hopes for change in Ano's leader, Finance Minister Andrej Babis, who has pledged to run the country like a business. However, to others the billionaire's agro-chemical and media empire represents a clear conflict of interest, and offers little chance of real change.
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