The future of the Czech coalition government is uncertain after a
corruption scandal in the junior Public Affairs party broke coalition
ranks. After the resignation of the central figure embroiled in the
Transport Minister Vít Bárta on Friday, Prime Minister Petr Nečas
announced his own plans for damage control, saying that Public Affairs
leader, Interior Minister Radek John and Education Minister Josef Dobeš
would also have to quit their posts. The Civic Democratic Party and TOP 09
have said the government reshuffle is not negotiable and they would insist
on it even if it were to lead to the fall of the pro-reform government.
The Public Affairs party shook in its foundations last week when two of its prominent members filed charges against Mr. Bárta, seen as the unofficial party boss, saying that he had bribed them in order to buy their loyalty and prevent them from questioning the party’s financing. Independently of them the media produced information indicating that the former owner of the biggest detective agency in the country ABL had established the political party in order to wield more power and did not have a problem tailing political rivals to achieve his goals. Mr. Bárta, who sold the ABL detective agency to his brother shortly after entering high politics, has denied the claims. Although he resigned from the post of transport minister on Friday he says he intends to clear his name and run for the post of party chairman.
The Public Affairs leadership, which met to debate the deepening government crisis on Saturday, said the planned government reshuffle must affect all parties. Party leader and Interior Minister Radek John said that he and Education Minister Josef Dobes were prepared to leave their posts on condition that the prime minister also dismisses Defense Minister Alexander Vondra from the Civic Democrats, TOP 09 Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek and Agriculture Minister Ivan Fuksa, also from the Civic Democrats –all of whom he said were linked to dubious contracts past and present. He said that if the prime minister wanted a clean slate the “presumption of guilt” must apply to all ministers in the government.
At a meeting of the Civic Democratic Party leadership on Saturday Prime
Minister Necas sharply rejected Public Affairs’ demand for three more
dismissals, saying he would not be pushed into some kind of barter deal to
satisfy the junior coalition party. Mr. Necas said the cabinet reshuffle
had proposed was in reaction to the scandal racking the Public Affairs
party and that more changes in the cabinet would be made in due time. He
moreover stressed that even had it not been for the present scandal
Interior Minister Radek John would have been dismissed for poor
The party leadership on Saturday expressed full support for the conditions set down by Prime Minister Petr Nečas particularly that of cleansing the cabinet of people linked directly or indirectly with the detective agency ABL. Both the Civic Democrats and the second party in government TOP 09 have indicated that they would be prepared to continue working in coalition with Public Affairs but only with a cleansed party, with people who would not act as puppets to the present leaders. One of the options also on the table is that the Civic Democrats and TOP 09 could continue as a minority government with support from some Public Affairs or former Public Affairs deputies. However it is not clear how many would be willing to do that. Although the Public Affairs Party has now ostensible closed ranks around its leaders – its members’ allegiances are uncertain as is the situation within the party.
President Vaclav Klaus said in his first official reaction to the government crisis on Saturday that the situation was very grave and that some kind of “regrouping” within the government was clearly needed. He did not specify what kind of regrouping he had in mind. The president said it seemed to him that that this crisis had been triggered intentionally and was premeditated and he could only hope that whoever was behind it knew the way out of this crisis. The president said that he was closely monitoring developments and would be ready to accept the resignation of one or more ministers, depending on the turn of events.
Krystína Kočí, the former head of the Public Affairs deputies club in Parliament, who was expelled for “violating party ethics” after reporting to the police that Mr. Bárta had attempted to bribe her with half a million crowns, told Saturday’s Lidové Noviny that the party was run like a religious sect in which Mr. Bárta was a cult figure and unchallenged leader. Ms. Kočí said that Mr. Bárta ordered what was to be done down to the last detail, masterminding her appearances in the media as well as those of the official party leader, former TV journalist Radek John. She claims that it was Vit Bárta, not Radek John, who ran the Interior Ministry and that Radek John was little more than a mascot, a well- known TV personality who helped Mr. Barta win votes in the elections. Paradoxically, the Public Affairs party, established shortly before the elections, did unexpectedly well in them on a strong anti-corruption agenda.
Firefighters have managed to contain a raging fire at a plastic waste disposal factory in the town of Chropyn. The emergency operation lasted for two days after a series of gas explosions on the site of the plant fuelled the fire further. Three hundred people living in the close vicinity were evacuated on Friday after heavy toxic fumes filled the air. It is not clear when they will be able to return to their homes. Forty fire crews were called to the site of the accident.
Prague’s main Easter market opened on Saturday on Old Town Square with over 90 stalls selling traditional Easter decorations, local specialties and souvenirs. Over the next fortnight locals and tourists will be able to enjoy outdoor theatre performances, live music and workshops at which people can try their hand at various arts and crafts.
The unofficial head of the Public Affairs party Transport Minister Vít Bárta, hit by serious corruption allegations, has stepped down from his post in the country’s cabinet. His notice was accepted on Friday by the prime minister and must now be confirmed by the president. Speaking to journalists, Mr Bárta made clear he was taking the step to prevent damage to the coalition government and its reform plans. The step follows allegations on Thursday that Mr Bárta gave a high-standing former party member a 500,000 crown bribe. A former deputy leader has made similar claims. Mr Bárta has denied any wrongdoing and said the alleged bribes were loans. Although he has quit the government, Mr Bárta confirmed on Friday he will still run for the post of leader of Public Affairs in part, he said, to clear his name.
Prime Minister Petr Nečas said at his own press conference following Mr Bárta’s announcement, that he had expected no other outcome to developments and said there had been no other viable option, saying he had accepted Mr Bárta’s resignation ‘immediately’. Speaking on live television, Mr Nečas made clear he was taking the growing scandal with utmost seriousness, and expressed concern over new allegations of ties between government officials and private detective agency ABL – formerly owned by Mr Bárta and now owned and run by his brother. In that light, the prime minister has cast doubt on whether the Public Affairs party should keep the post of interior minister, held by Radek John, saying that will be the subject of a meeting between coalition leaders later on Friday. Mr Nečas said in no uncertain terms that the cabinet faces a shakeup in the spring period, saying that some ministers were not up to their jobs.
In related news, a day earlier Public Affairs expelled two members at a meeting of party MPs, as corruption allegations against the party’s unofficial leader Vít Bárta grew. Krystýna Kočí, who filed charges against Mr Bárta for allegedly attempting to bribe her with a payment of 500,000 crowns and was the head of the deputies’ club, was one of those thrown out. MP Stanislav Huml was also forced out after he sided with Ms Kočí and Jaroslav Škárka, another former member who has claimed to have been paid under the table by the transport minister for his loyalty and secrecy on financial affairs. The allegations have brought a major shadow over the self-styled anti-corruption party and have threatened the stability of the ruling coalition.
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