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Czech Republic: when a political scandal is a sign of better times

In June, PM Petr Necas and his cabinet resigned after a major political scandal. In spite of the current uncertainty and power play between political parties, may this also be a sign that democratic accountability and the rule of law have finally come to the young republic?

Czech PM Petr Necas resigns. Demotix/Petr Studnicny. All rights reserved.Czech PM Petr Necas resigns. Demotix/Petr Studnicny. All rights reserved.

On 13 June a special unit of the Czech police broke into the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic and under the auspices of the public prosecutor charged prime minister Petr Necas' chief of staff, Jana Nagyova, of corruption and abuse of official authority. It may not sound like it, but this is good news.

Nagyova, now in custody, was the prime minister’s chief of staff since July 2010 and, allegedly, his mistress. She is said to have had notable influence on Petr Necas’ decisions during his time in power, and on the inner-workings of his party, the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS), of which she is also a member.

According to police officials and the public prosecutor, Nagyova was involved in illegal political bargaining with deputies of the Czech parliament, when in November 2012 three ODS MPs were awarded lucrative posts in state companies in exchange for their resignation and loyalty to the party during an important parliamentary vote. Nagyova is also charged with abusing her authority by tasking the military intelligence to track Petr Necas’ wife (for yet unspecified reasons).

While the police operation of 13 June was widespread and targeted many other lobbyists and former politicians reportedly involved in organized crime, the case of Nagyova is likely to have the biggest impact on the future of Czech politics. By carrying out the operation, the police and the prosecutor must have been well aware that these revelations would spark a massive political scandal, which would most likely force the Cabinet to resign.

The mere fact that the police and the public prosecutor did not back away from a case that involved a close associate of the prime minister symbolizes that the two institutions hold more autonomy than they did a few years ago. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed that the work of the prosecutors and the police was hindered, if not paralyzed, by pressures and obstructions on the part of politicians and political parties.

Although some politicians and conspiratorial commentators have alluded to a “putsch” carried out by the police or even claimed that the operation was a plot devised by left-wing parties, the recent investigations of the Czech police and public prosecutors, which increasingly target corruption and clientelist networks in the higher echelons of Czech politics, are finally strengthening democratic principles, such as the rule of law, which often prove to have fragile foundations in the post-communist political system.

Many cases of politicians and their associates engaging in illegal activities have been revealed in the Czech Republic since the early 90s, but a large number of them has never led to specific sanctions or satisfying conclusions. Therefore, in order for the current operation to be fully successful, the police and the prosecutor have an obligation to present the public with clear evidence and conclusions of their investigation.

Complete details of the entire police operation are yet to be revealed. They will hopefully unfold in the coming weeks, but for the current political developments the specifics are not too important. Indeed, a few days after the police raid in the Office of the Government, Petr Necas and his Cabinet resigned, leaving room for a new cabinet to form.

Making of the new Cabinet

Since Necas’ resignation, the Chamber of Deputies has roughly been divided into two camps – the right-wing parties (i.e. the coalition government) want to nominate their own candidate to form the new Cabinet, while the left-wing parties (i.e. the opposition) opt for early elections. However, President Milos Zeman, who entered the office earlier this year claiming he would be a more “active” president, has chosen a third option.

Despite the fact that the coalition has claimed to have preliminarily collected the 101 votes necessary to pass a vote of confidence for the new Cabinet formed by their designated candidate (Miroslava Nemcova, the current Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies), President Zeman has instead named his own candidate (Jiri Rusnok) to form the new Cabinet. This step, taken by the president, was labeled in some circles as unconstitutional (who claimed the President was initially obliged to accept the nominee of the coalition government and not come up with his own), but this allegation is misleading. Zeman may be breaking with constitutional customs, but his step is not unconstitutional per se.

Jiri Rusnok, an economist and a friend of Milos Zeman, is now putting together the names of his ministers and the President is expected to name the new Cabinet by 10 July. The newly formed Cabinet will have to face the Parliament and receive a vote of confidence within 30 days.

The entire affair seems to play right into the hands of President Milos Zeman. His presidential campaign was based on the criticism of Petr Necas’ Cabinet, which is now out of the way.

Zeman has gained leverage to influence the formation of the new Cabinet and also to possibly bring forth early elections, which would constitute an easy victory for the left (according to current opinion polls). Rusnok will very likely fill the ministerial  posts in the new Cabinet with people Milos Zeman is comfortable with and the new Minister of Foreign Affairs is expected to agree with Zeman’s ambassador nominations (Zeman had a row over the nomination of ambassadors with the current Minister of Foreign Affairs). Also, if Rusnok’s Cabinet receives confidence, it may reach a decision on another pressing matter, and the biggest public tender in Czech history, the upgrade of the Temelin nuclear power station.

At this point, it is unclear whether Rusnok’s caretaker government will receive the necessary amount of confidence votes, but the Czech Parliament is very likely to see massive confidence-vote bargaining in the coming days as each party will attempt to exploit the situation for its own benefit.

About the author

Jan Hornát is a lecturer at Charles University in Prague and Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Prague.

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