Czech politics rocked by bribery charges against associates of opposition leader

Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolanek

What is being described as the biggest political scandal in years escalated dramatically on Thursday, when police arrested two men connected with the leader of the opposition Civic Democrats. The men have been charged with bribing a coalition MP to bring down the government.

MP Zdenek Koristka says a lobbyist and an assistant to Civic Democrat leader Mirek Topolanek offered him a bribe of 10 million crowns (around 300,000 euros) and a future ambassadorial post to bring down the government - which has a majority of just one - in a confidence vote.

It is his word against theirs, and while Mr Koristka passed a lie detector test during police questioning the results are not admissible in a Czech court.

On Thursday - evidently acting on that testimony alone - police arrested lobbyist Jan Vecerek at his home in a 6 a.m. swoop, before picking up Marek Dalik - assistant to Mirek Topolanek - a couple of hours later. The two have been charged with bribing a public official.

There has been some criticism of the manner in which the arrests were carried out: President Vaclav Klaus called them "theatrical", while Deputy Prime Minister Miroslav Kalousek said they had been made "very much for effect".

Civic Democrats chairman Mirek Topolanek, whose political future is on the line, suggests the "Grosstapo" is behind the whole affair. By that he means allies of Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, who until recently was the powerful head of the Interior Ministry.

Mirek Topolanek is effectively saying that the prime minister is attempting to use his power to destroy his political opponents, a strong assertion which follows a claim Mr Topolanek made this week that his phone has been tapped for almost two years.

For his part, Mr Gross dismisses the allegations, saying the Civic Democrats leader has himself "politicized" the case.

Commentators say Mr Topolanek's political career would be dealt a fatal blow if his two emissaries were found guilty. For that, however, the police will surely have to produce more evidence than one man's testimony.

Another question is whether the scandal will influence the results of Senate and regional elections due to take place in just over a month's time.