Agriculture minister's head rolls

Allegations that state officials, including Agriculture Minister Petr Zgarba, had passed on inside information to land speculators have caused heads to roll - first those of the entire board of the powerful Land Fund and finally that of Minister Zgarba himself.

Agriculture Minister Petr Zgarba maintains that he is innocent of the allegations against him and he did everything possible to save his own neck in the midst of the scandal that broke out. As one commentator put it "he cleared out the Land Fund with the furniture" in order to save himself. But, with Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek in office, he never stood a chance.

When Jiri Paroubek became prime minister a few months ago the ruling Social Democrats' credibility was in a shambles - not least because his predecessor Stanislav Gross had clung to his post with egg on his face. Mr. Paroubek managed to regain public trust by projecting the image of an efficient manager who is swift and uncompromising in dealing with problems. And, ahead of next year's elections, he is more uncompromising than usual. He recently replaced the former health Minister Milada Emmerova with a man who is poised to effect the most radical reform of the health sector in 13 years and he is now clearly determined to salvage what he can from the Land Fund scandal that broke out two weeks ago. His authority in the party - since he took up the post of prime minister and turned around its fortunes - is unquestioned. However, the road ahead is not going to be easy. Just a few months ago the Social Democrats were racked by inner conflict with left and right factions pulling in different directions. Political analyst Vladimira Dvorakova believes that although the prime minister has won a battle he has not yet won the war.

Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
"Well I think that, in any case, the impact of these scandals has been extremely negative. When Mr. Paroubek became Prime Minister he gained popularity mainly by the fact that he was able to quickly resolve any problems that could hurt the party. On the other hand I am not sure that Mr. Zgarba's departure could not have negative impacts inside the party. There are still a lot of factions in the party that are not every active at present, or very vocal in criticising the Prime Minister but they exist, they are strong and we shall see how this resignation by the agriculture minister will be accepted by them."

But basically the party's success depends on Mr. Paroubek himself doesn't it?

"It does depend on him because he is very popular but it also depends on whether the party can present a united front and focus on resolving the problems that concern the public. What it mustn't do is to focus on internal party problems conflicts, arguments and blackmailing of the party leadership as we've seen in the past. The party needs to regain the image of a party that's primarily concerned with the problems and issues that concern the public."