Outgoing Prague mayor Pavel Bém leaves mixed legacy

Pavel Bém, photo: CTK

After eight years in office, Prague’s mayor Pavel Bém said goodbye on Thursday, marking the end of an era at City Hall. Mr Bém took the top job in the capital just a few months after the city had been hit by the worst floods in its modern history, and has since managed to stabilise the city’s ailing finances. But his term has also been tainted by allegations of wide-spread corruption.

Pavel Bém, photo: CTK
At Prague’s historic Old Town Hall on Thursday the city’s outgoing mayor, Pavel Bém, bade farewell to colleagues, supporters and friends. A psychiatrist by profession and a passionate mountaineer, the 47-year-old politician told guests, including President Václav Klaus, that he had delivered on his pledges during two terms at the helm.

“I promised I would do everything to remove all the damage caused by the terrible floods. I promised I would create a modern and effective anti-flood protection system. I said I would try to lead the city out of a debt trap, and out of a deficit.

“Mr President, let me now, seven and a half years since our first meeting here, symbolically hand the city over to you, and let me say: the promises have been fulfilled.”

But several projects overseen by Pavel Bém were far from successful. These included the hugely overpriced Opencard, a chip card to pay for public transport, parking, and other things which spurred corruption allegations; suspicious rentals of city property; insensitive development that may cost the city its UNESCO status; and over-ambitious plans to host the Olympics.

Václav Klaus, Pavel Bém, photo: CTK
However, President Václav Klaus, often seen as a mentor to the mayor, said it was unfair to bring up such matters.

“Today, in a time of overwhelming political and media anarchy, it’s not considered good manners to thank someone. What is considered good manners is prodding, jeering, criticizing, and taking things out of context. Saying thank you has ceased to be politically correct. So I believe that it’s only right for me, as the president, to thank Pavel Bém.”

In 2006, Mr Bém led the Civic Democrats to the party’s greatest victory ever in both local and general elections in the capital. However last month the party was defeated in Prague for the first time since the fall of communism. Commentator Erik Best says Mr Bém became a symbol of what was wrong with City Hall in recent years.

“I think that the problem when looking at the Bém years is the realization by the voters and citizens that the good times were here, yes, but at the same time, too much was lost during that period that could have been gained or prevented.

Prague City Hall
“So I think that’s why his leaving as mayor is a bit bitter-sweet because he is seen now as being a centrepiece of a government that was considered widely corrupt, and one that in the end especially did not take the interests of citizens much to heart.”

Some three weeks after local elections, negotiations are still ongoing about who will be the new mayor of Prague. Pavel Bém, meanwhile, will remain in politics, having won a seat in the lower house in May.