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 scandal 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 he 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 performance anyway.
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 coming days are expected to be clear and sunny with daytime highs at around 15 degrees Celsius.