Opposition Freedom Union to return controversial gifts

Freedom Union's logo

The opposition Freedom Union announced on Tuesday that was planning to return two controversial donations, totalling some 120,000 Czech crowns. The decision follows a newspaper report accusing Freedom Union council members in the towns of Olomouc, and Ceské Budejovice of rewarding people who had donated money to the party with lucrative business contracts. Dita Asiedu reports.

The Freedom Union, part of the opposition Four-Party Coalition, was founded in 1998 by members of the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, angry at the party's failure to address allegations of corruption. And so Freedom Union leader Hana Marvanova has been quick to deal with the accusations. Mrs Marvanova said the decision to return the money was to prove the party's honesty and remove "even a shadow of doubt" about the fairness of awarding contracts.

"We decided to verify the allegations and noticed that the donation in Olomouc had already been returned after an inquiry. As far as the donation in Ceske Budejovice is concerned, we plan to return the money because the company in question did win the tender. Yesterday, we agreed that all partners of the Four Party Coalition are equally interested in making party financing as transparent as possible."

Vladimira Dvorakova, from the Politics Department of Prague's School of Economics, welcomes the Freedom Union's decision. She says she hopes the quick response signals a change of the political culture here in the Czech Republic:

"You know, for the Freedom Union, the main problem is how to identify itself against the ODS. They are both right-wing political parties and one difference on which the Freedom Union wants to base its new identity is that fairness dealing with financial donations. But it has positive impacts because there will be a changed atmosphere in society as it will strengthen the position of this anti-corruption feeling in society."

The allegations were made on Monday and the Freedom Union's reaction came a day later. Mrs Dvorakova says the response could be seen as a tactic to gain votes in the upcoming elections. But she does hope that this custom - speedy reaction to criticism - will prevail and become part of the Czech political scene:

"I think that a lot of financial scandals will surface just before the electoral campaign. It will probably be against all the political parties. I think that this decision was also taken by the Social Democrats several months ago when they also decided to return money. I really find this to be positive. It would be nice if it became a rule in Czech society as it would really change the atmosphere and belief in the fairness of political competition."