Government party rocked by major corruption scandal days ahead of EU presidency

Just days ahead of the onset of its EU presidency, the Czech Republic has been hit by a major corruption scandal connected to the second largest government party – the Mayors and Independents. The affair has already cost the head of one minister, but opposition groupings are calling for more blood as the party faces the worst public relations disaster in its 17-year-long history.

Petr Hlubuček  (STAN) | Photo: Michaela Říhová,  ČTK

A major police crackdown on Wednesday June 15, saw the arrests of 10 people accused of being part of an organised crime group that was involved in a long-term corruption scheme connected to the Prague Public Transit Company (DPP). Among them was the now former Prague City Hall Councillor of the Mayors and Independents party Petr Hlubuček, several high ranking officials within the DPP as well as the seeming central figure of the alleged criminal scheme - businessman and lobbyist Michal Redl.

The results of the police crackdown have rocked the Czech political scene as the Mayors and Independents are not only represented in the governing body of Prague, but are also the second largest party in the cabinet of Petr Fiala.

Petr Gazdík | Photo: Michal Krumphanzl,  ČTK

On Sunday, Education Minister Petr Gazdík, who was one of the founders of the party, announced his resignation due to his relationship with Mr Redl, who has long been in the media spotlight as an individual with a shady history.

“I have decided to resign from the position of Minister of Education on the 30th of June. While I do not feel guilty either in principle or in terms of breaking the law, my meetings with some people are casting a shadow also on the alliance of Pirates and Mayors. I do not want to cause problems for the government or the coalition just days ahead of the start of our country’s EU presidency.”

Although not under investigation, Mr Gazdík is reported to have met several times with Mr Redl and communicated with him via encrypted messages.

Petr Fiala | Photo: Václav Šálek,  ČTK

Speaking to TV Prima on Sunday, Prime Minister Petr Fiala defended the minister, saying Mr Gazdík’s move was the sign of a new approach by the current government on how to proceed in response to corruption allegations connected to parties in power.

“I commend the minister’s decision. Based on the information that is publically available the minister is neither being investigated by the police nor charged with having committed any crime, but he did deduce political responsibility and that is an example of the new style of politics that we are trying to uphold.”

Tomio Okamura | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

However, this has come as little consolation to the opposition. Freedom and Direct Democracy party leader Tomio Okamura accused the prime minister of “sticking his head in the sand” instead of removing the whole Mayors and Independents party from government.

Meanwhile, the leader of the strongest opposition grouping in the lower-house, former prime minister Andrej Babiš, pointed to the fact that the current Interior Minister Vít Rakušan is also the chairman of the Mayors and Independents and accused him of covering for the party through his position as head of the internal security services.

Vít Rakušan | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“The mayors and Independents are organised crime, I have said it repeatedly. I think we all know that they went into politics to steal money for themselves, so it’s nothing surprising.”

Confronted with the ANO leader’s words on Czech Television on Sunday, Mr Rakušan said that he felt insulted by the accusation and pointed to Mr Babiš’s own situation of being a defendant in an EU subsidy fraud case. He also ruled out any plans for his own resignation, saying that arrests being made on members of his own party while he is in charge of the ministry show that he does not interfere in police work.

Michal Redl | Photo: Michaela Říhová,  ČTK

“I am not considering it. I am not connected with this affair in any way and that can also be seen through the police documents that have so far been released publically. I never saw Mr Redl in my life and I have no phone contact for him…It is unbelievable what Mr Babiš is allowing himself to say.”

While the Mayors and Independents are making full use of the ANO party’s own checkered history on dealing with corruption allegations, this defence may prove insufficient in salvaging the party’s public relations image as an example of non-corrupt good governance.