Deputy Prime Minister could face corruption charges

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK

Christian Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Jiri Cunek, who is suspected of having taken a half a million crown bribe while he served as mayor of Vsetin, is sinking deeper into trouble. Several of his chief witnesses have been accused of perjury -and the Prime Minister's patience with Mr Cunek appears to be at an end. However dismissing his deputy is proving harder than one might expect.

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
Jiri Cunek is the first ever serving Czech cabinet minister to be accused of bribery. The scandal surrounding him is grist to the mill of the opposition but the Christian Democrat leader has persistently ignored calls for him to resign, maintaining that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said on Thursday that if the police should file charges against Mr. Cunek he would have no option but to dismiss him.

"If this case is not shelved and if the police should file charges against Jiri Cunek then I hope that he will do what is right. If he does not, I will have to make that decision for him."

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
However that's easier said than done. The Prime Minister heads a fragile coalition government where any internal dispute could seriously rock the boat. He has promised to consult any personnel changes with his coalition partners, and the Christian Democrats are simply not willing to let Mr. Cunek go. Three of their MPs have said they would not support the government if he were dismissed. In other words if Mr. Cunek falls, he could take the government with him. The Civic Democrats and the Greens can only hope that the Christian Democrat leadership will resolve this sensitive issue within party ranks and do so soon. Logically, one would think that it would be in the party's own interest to replace him. So why are the Christian Democrats unwilling to part with their controversial leader? One indicator might be his recent 10 percent increase in popularity ratings. Political analyst Petr Just says that the man who rode to power by getting tough on Roma rent defaulters still has a lot of public support and the image of a pragmatic politician who is not afraid to solve problems.

"Jiri Cunek's performance is not assessed only on the grounds of this scandal. People still remember his activities when he was mayor of Vsetin, particularly how he resolved the problems relating to the Roma minority in town. And it is obvious that people approved of his decisions, approved of his actions and they are not ready to write him off just yet. In a way what he did then is still working for him today. It still gets him points in opinion polls. But there is of course also a negative side linked to these more recent scandals and accusations."

Clearly the Christian Democrats can't make up their minds what would hurt them more - to let Jiri Cunek go or to keep him in office. As for Mr. Cunek himself he is determined to ride out the storm - saying that he would not leave government of his own accord even if he were charged with corruption.