Fresh corruption scandal shakes ruling TOP 09 party ahead of elections

Vladimír Šiška, photo: Czech Television

A fresh corruption scandal has hit the Czech coalition government less than a fortnight ahead of October’s regional and senate elections and this time the police struck higher than ever before in the echelons of executive power. On Monday plainclothes officers detained Deputy Labour and Social Affairs Minister Vladimír Šiška and the ministry’s IT section head Milan Hojer. Both were later charged with bribery. The news has sent shockwaves through the ruling TOP 09 party which on Tuesday met to debate the crisis.

Vladimír Šiška,  photo: Czech Television
It was a black Monday for Labour and Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek. Plainclothes officers turned up at the ministry early in the morning and led away his right hand man and long-time close associate, deputy minister Vladimir Šiška together with the ministry’s head of IT Milan Hojer. According to the minister no explanation was offered as the police went about their business, leaving stunned employees speculating about the cause of their visit. A spokesman for the anti-corruption police provided a terse explanation several hours later, confirming the ministry’s worst fears.

“The two officials have been charged with bribery in connection with public procurement, and irregularities in announcing a public tender.”

Photo: Barbora Němcová
The police have so far refused to say which tender this concerns, who the men are suspected of having bribed or how much money was involved. According to media speculation it could be any of half a dozen costly tenders masterminded by deputy minister Šiška, including a controversial 65 million crown contract on a study proposing systemic changes at the ministry –which according to the Anti-Corruption Fund was handed to a firm linked to Šiška’s close aide and a controversial tender for the introduction of a new IT system as a means of paying out welfare benefits which has come under severe criticism. Vladimir Šiška himself has previously been investigated by the police on suspicion of conflict of interests after the power giant CEZ accused him of trying to sell them overpriced shares in a firm in which he had a stake. Fortunately for him, the case was closed for lack of evidence.

Visibly shaken by the latest developments, Minister Drábek was called to give an explanation to the prime minister on Monday night and attend a crisis meeting of his party’s leadership on Tuesday. Following the meeting, the minister announced he was dismissing Šiška from his post.

Jaromír Drábek,  photo: CTK
“On the basis of nine years of close cooperation with Vladimír Šiška I remain fully convinced of his innocence. However should his guilt be proven beyond doubt then I will take responsibility for my choice of deputy and will resign from the post of labour and social affairs minister.”

The announcement stilled calls from the regions for the minister’s immediate resignation and TOP 09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg publicly threw his weight behind the minister at Tuesday’s press briefing in Prague. However the grave faces at the press conference revealed just how serious a blow this was to the party ahead of the regional and senate elections and how little room there was left for any kind of damage mitigation.