Czech PM faces ministerial haemorrhage from ANO veterans

Karla Šlechtová, photo: ČTK/Šimánek Vít

Czech prime minister and ANO leader Andrej Babiš has had an uphill battle but now appears on the verge of sealing a coalition government deal more than six months after elections. But as talk turns to the composition of a possible ANO-Social Democrat Cabinet, the ANO leader is facing the prospect that many of his veteran ministers quitting the political scene.

Karla Šlechtová,  photo: ČTK/Šimánek Vít
To misquote Oscar Wilde, to lose one minister might be regarded as misfortune but to lose four looks like carelessness.

But that’s precisely the scenario now facing Czech election winner Andrej Babiš as months of frustrating and turbulent coalition talks now look like they could give birth to a minority government with the Social Democrats.

The latest ministerial casualty looks like being the country’s fairly abrasive defence minister, Karla Šlechtová after a row erupted over her travel expenses in the former post of minister for regional development.

The Czech daily Lidové Noviny reported that Šlechtová had spent hundreds of thousands of crowns on booking the VIP suite at Prague’s Václav Havel airport as part of her foreign trips. Šlechtová defended herself saying that it allowed her to work and make efficient use of her time and pointed out that she took economy flights to save taxpayers’ money, unlike other ministers.

But the row was made all the more poignant given the fact that the newspaper is part of the media empire of prime minister Babiš, which is currently held in trust for him. And Šlechtová says the paper has clearly been out to discredit her:

ʺI really regret and am disappointed that this newspaper is part of the sovereign holding of the prime minister.ʺ

And Babiš, also known for his blunt speaking, did not initially pour water on the flames by denouncing Šlechtová’s spending habits:

ʺI regard this as wasting money and, if this information is true, then it’s clearly not good.ʺ

Later Babiš said he might take up Šlechtová’s suggestion and audit the past travel expenses of other ministers as well.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The defence minister has recently been attracting unfriendly fire, for example, when she took and made public a photo of her pet dog on a wreath laid at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Prague. And relations with the ANO leader probably haven’t been helped by media suggestions she might be asked to form a government if he failed.

Šlechtová said she would like to remain as a minister, but not at any cost. Transport minister Dan Ťok is expected to give his final decision at the end of the week after hinting that he does not really want to carry on. Foreign minister Martin Stropnický and justice minister Robert Pelikan have already said they want to quit top politics.

If they all go, that would just leave deputy prime minister and environment minister Richard Brabec and Babiš himself with fairly long recent stints as ANO Cabinet ministers.

All of the above, could be regarded as veterans in office and already subject to normal political wear and tear. One study found that the average tenure of a Czech Cabinet ministers in office was around two-and-a-half years, a relatively high figure for Central Europe. That suggests many of the ANO contingent were due to go.