One of the most controversial figures in Czech politics, Deputy Prime Minister Jiri Cunek, is at the centre of a fresh scandal. The Christian Democrat leader who has widely advocated the need to prevent abuse of the welfare system is now himself under suspicion of having abused it himself before he entered politics.
Deputy Prime Minister Jiri Cunek is back in the headlines. He has weathered accusations of racism, sexual harassment and charges of corruption -claiming to be the victim of an orchestrated campaign intended to discredit him and his party. Amazingly he survived it all. Just weeks after the corruption investigation was closed for lack of evidence - the public is watching the same scenario unfold once again. The country's public broadcaster Czech Television claims it has certificates to prove that back in 1997 Jiri Cunek drew social benefits and housing allowances from the state at a time when he deposited 3.5 million crowns (close to 190,000 US dollars) into three separate bank accounts. Jiri Cunek is crying foul and is suing Czech Television for libel. He claims he never got anything except birth and child allowances that any parent is entitled to. It is not clear where the case will go from here. No one has as yet filed charges and even if the police were to start investigating the matter and find that the certificates are authentic there is little they could do about it since the case would be statute-barred. However there is the moral aspect of the matter - which is causing the Cabinet and Mr. Cunek's own party immense embarrassment. The prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, who is bound by a coalition agreement not to sack any ministers without the approval of their own party, said on Wednesday that unless Jiri Cunek could clear his name he would have to leave the cabinet. When he made that ultimatum on previous occasions the Christian Democrats stood firmly behind their leader. Now their reactions indicate that support for Mr. Cunek is waning and that even his closest allies have come to realize that the once promising politician has become a liability. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek had this to say:
Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek
"For anyone to be on welfare at a time when he had millions of crowns in the bank is simply unjustifiable and I can say nothing in his defense."
Michaela Sojdrova of the same party echoed the prime minister's own argument.
"No government can afford to hold on to a minister who has abused welfare benefits."
Political commentator Petr Just agrees, noting that both the party and the government are paying a high price for Jiri Cunek's continued presence in the centre-right cabinet.
"It is obvious that a party leader - a figure who is at the top of the party hierarchy - will influence how voters view the party, how possible sponsors view the party and in fact how voters of the other coalition parties view the governing coalition. Mr. Cunek is surrounded almost permanently by suspicions and no matter how this affair ends it is quite obvious that Mr. Cunek's presence in politics, in the Christian Democratic Party leadership has influenced the party negatively."
Unless Mr. Cunek can prove with absolute conviction that he did not preach water and drink wine his pet subject - abuse of the welfare system - could well break his back.