Government’s anti-corruption drive comes too close to home for comfort

Jaromír Drábek, photo: CTK

The Czech government’s anti-corruption drive has claimed another victim close to home: a member of the cabinet. Labour and Social Affairs Minister Jaromír Drábek on Wednesday announced his resignation from office not long after the police charged his first deputy with bribery. While the minister proclaimed his innocence and attempted to salvage his party’s reputation by doing the “honorable thing”, the information being released on the case is highly unsettling.

Jaromír Drábek, photo: CTK
While two days ago minister Drábek lashed out at the police for detaining his first deputy without explanation news that a court had placed his long-time friend and close associate in detention put the minister in a visibly more contrite mood.

“I do not feel any guilt whatsoever. However I bear ultimate responsibility for the actions of my subordinates and I accept that responsibility now by resigning from office.”

While news of the labour minister’s resignation evoked general relief among cabinet members and his own party TOP 09 tried to sell it as an honorable deed that is rare in Czech politics, the media brought the first concrete information about the case. The now former deputy labour minister Vladimir Šiška who masterminded contracts worth two billion crowns is reported to have handed tenders to friends and when the company OKsystem lodged a complaint against the fact that the ministry had not announced a tender for a multi-million crown contract for developing a new IT system as a means of paying out welfare benefits the deputy minister tried to hush things up by promising the firm a contract worth 100 million crowns on condition it withdrew its complaint. According to the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes, the firm was cooperating with the anti-corruption police and the offer was secretly recorded. Any doubts regarding the truth of these newspaper reports were dashed by a statement from anti-corruption police spokesman Jaroslav Ibehej:

Vladimír Šiška, photo: CTK
“The bribe under investigation consists of a promise of a 100 million crown contract that was to have been granted to a private company in return for withdrawing its complaint to the Anti-Monopoly Office.“

The opposition Social Democrats –who are trying to live down their own corruption scandal –have expressed shock over the allegations and are calling for a parliamentary commission to investigate the awarding of past contracts under Vladimir Šiška’s management – contracts to the tune of 2 billion crowns. Opposition politicians also want to know why the labour minister’s resignation is effective as of the end of the month and what he plans to do in office between now and then. Ten days before the country’s regional and senate elections, accusations are flying back and forth in a case that may take years to untangle.

The scandal is another blow to the centre-right government, weakened by infighting within the senior Civic Democratic Party where six rebel deputies have refused to back tax-hikes that are crucial for the approval of next years’ state budget. The embattled prime minister has linked the proposed bill to a vote of confidence in his administration. Given the fact that the centre-right coalition government, which has lost ten ministers since taking office, no longer has a majority in the lower house it may not only be minister Drábek’s days in office which are numbered.