Defence Minister Vondra announces decision to step down

Alexandr Vondra, Petr Nečas, photo: CTK

Civic Democrat Alexandr Vondra announced on Wednesday he was stepping down as defence minister. The straw that broke the camel’s back in Mr Vondra’s case, was defeat in the recent Senate elections as well as his failure to retain a top spot in his party’s leadership. His departure has led to speculation of a possible broader cabinet reshuffle even as the parties in government begin negotiations on a revamped coalition agreement.

Alexandr Vondra,  photo: CTK
For opponents of the country’s defence minister, namely members of the opposition Social Democrats, Alexdandr Vondra’s departure was a long time coming. The defence minister, who served as the deputy prime minister for European Affairs in the previous government led by Mirek Topolánek, was damaged by a scandal related to the Czech EU presidency that came to be known as the Promopro affair – a case of suspected embezzlement in which 12 people were charged. Mr Vondra, himself not charged, withstood the criticism and in the end outlasted most of his fellow colleagues in Nečas’s government. From the original team, only Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek and Health Minister Leoš Heger as well as the prime minister himself remain. On Wednesday, here’s what Alexandr Vondra had to say:

“As a government minister you need to not only be good at what you do, but also have to have the support of the prime minister and voters. The Senate elections in the autumn showed I no longer had enough voter support. That is why I have decided to step down. It was a decision I reached earlier but put off for a number of reasons.”

These included finalising the budget for the defence ministry, he said, as well as the draft state budget for 2013, hosting NATO’s secretary general and completing a visit to the US where he met with his American counterpart. Mr Vondra specified on Wednesday that he will step down on December 7th but will report beforehand on the state of negotiations with Sweden over the renewed lease of a fleet of Gripen fighter jets. He praised the state of current talks, saying effectively he had held out for a better deal. Prime Minister Nečas, when he spoke, had nothing but praise.

“I want to thank Mr Vondra for his two-and-a-half years in office and stress that as a member of government he was someone who was active beyond his ministry. His departure from the Defence Ministry is clearly a loss. As someone with a close understanding of the ministry in the past, I can say he was the best defence minister in 20 years.”

Alexandr Vondra,  Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
Who will replace Mr Vondra as defence minister remains a big question: the prime minister made clear he had someone in mind to but refused to reveal a name. He also did not reveal to what degree ongoing talks on a new coalition agreement with the other two parties TOP 09 and namely LIDEM (which replaced the earlier Public Affairs) might influence any decision. As it stands, Mr Necas is the last Civic Democrat from the original cabinet from 2010; his cabinet has now seen the departure of more ministers than any before it, a “first” that would have been viewed as highly unlikely two-and-a-half years ago when it was first sworn in after winning an unprecedented majority.