Outgoing culture minister caught up in political tug-of-war

Antonín Staněk, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

The drawn-out saga surrounding the resignation of the embattled Czech culture minister took a fresh twist on Monday when the president refused to accept his demise. The latest move in what critics are calling “a theatre of the absurd” has only deepened the crisis in the Czech cultural sphere.

Antonín Staněk,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio
Culture Minister Antonín Staněk of the Social Democrats has been in the news since Easter, when he unexpectedly sacked the heads of two leading cultural institutions –the National Gallery in Prague and the Museum of Art in Olomouc – without giving a proper explanation for his decision. Leading Czech cultural figures stood up for the dismissed officials and the heads of some of the leading galleries around the world petitioned the Czech government about the matter.

Belatedly, Staněk argued that his decision was based on financial irregularities discovered in the course of audits at the respective cultural institutions, but his arguments failed to convince his party boss, Social Democrat leader Jan Hamáček. In mid-May, Staněk bowed to the pressure and announced he was ready to resign at the end of the month if President Zeman accepted his decision.

The president, who has praised Staněk’s work and who has engaged in a public dispute with the head of the Prague National Gallery for years, stood up for the culture minister, refusing to accept his resignation on the argument that he should not have to quit under pressure for having uncovered serious financial irregularities in the cultural sphere.

Jan Kysela, an expert on constitutional law commented on the situation.

“The manner in which Staněk resigned was most unusual in that he made it clear that his hand had been forced and he thus prepared the ground for the president’s decision. And as for President Zeman he likes to show that he is the key player on the Czech political scene –as he has done many times in the past.”

Michal Šmarda,  photo: ČTK/David Taneček
Social Democrat leader Jan Hamáček promptly asked Prime Minister Andrej Babis to dismiss the culture minister – a decision that the president will have to accept under the Czech constitutional order, and one that Babis said he was ready to comply with. Consequently the brief tug of war over the Czech culture minister may soon be over. However it has left its mark on the Social Democratic Party, which suffered a humiliating defeat in the European elections.

Moreover the man hand-picked to succeed Antonín Staněk – the mayor of Nové město na Morave Michal Šmarda -was frowned upon by the prime minister, who indicated that he did not have the skills required for the job and who earlier irked the head of government by opposing the Social Democrats’ decision to enter into a coalition with the prime minister’s ANO party.

Michal Šmarda, who finds himself at the centre of controversy even before taking office had this to say.

“The reason I nodded to the offer is that I was asked to do so by Mr. Hamáček, who made it clear that he thought I was up to the job. But if the prime minister or president think otherwise, I have no problem accepting that. All I ask is that they decide quickly, so that the situation in the cultural sphere does not deteriorate further.”