Scandals rock Czech political scene ahead of local, Senate elections

Pavel Bém, Mirek Topolánek, Ivan Langer, photo: CTK

Three weeks ahead of local and Senate elections the Czech political scene is fraught with discord. The Civic Democrats, the strongest party in the Czech governing coalition, has been hard hit by a blackmail and entrapment scandal involving two of its deputies. Last weekend brought another bombshell – the daily Mladá fronta Dnes alleged that two Civic Democrats – rebel deputy Vlastimil Tlustý and Interior Minister Ivan Langer as well as opposition leader Jiří Paroubek of the Social Democrats had in the past been in contact with the mafia, publishing recordings of telephone conversations to prove its point. The governing coalition has been severely weakened by these scandals and the election campaign has turned into a vicious mudslinging match. Radio Prague spoke to political analyst Jiří Pehe about the impact of all this on the upcoming elections.

Pavel Bém,  Mirek Topolánek,  Ivan Langer,  photo: CTK
“I am afraid that this series of scandals will affect the elections in two negative ways. First, there will be a low turnout –I think a lot of voters will not bother to vote simply because they feel it does not make any sense and, secondly, I think it will damage the Civic Democratic Party which has been the hardest-hit by various scandals.”

This has come at a very bad time – ahead of the country’s EU presidency. What are the government’s chances of survival?

“I would say its chances are 50/50. On the one hand, it would be natural for the government to collapse right now given the disagreements between the main ruling Civic Democratic Party and its coalition partners, but on the other hand there will most likely be a lot of pressure even from politicians of the opposition parties to keep the government together in some form in view of the country’s EU presidency. Of course, it is possible that the government will fall and at that point I think that the opposition and the current coalition will get together and try to find some solution for the duration of the EU presidency.”

But how will this situation affect people’s trust in politicians and the perception of Czech politics in general?

“I am afraid that people’s trust in politics and politicians is very low right now and it could not go very much lower. I am afraid that what we see is really a very serious series of scandals which for an ordinary Czech can mean only one thing: politics is not to be trusted and politicians are –as a class – basically crooks. That is a very bad message for any democratic country.”

We have heard calls for commissions to be set up to investigate these scandals. Do you think that politicians are addressing these scandals adequately?

The opposition leader Jiří Paroubek of the Social Democrats
“Well establishing a parliamentary commission to investigate these scandals may be a good thing under normal circumstances but the problem is that we are just a few weeks away from the elections which means that this scandal will be viewed by voters as yet another attempt by the opposition to weaken the governing coalition and also I am afraid that this whole exercise will turn into a mudslinging match because while the opposition parties will try to investigate scandals within the Civic Democratic Party and within the other coalition parties, the Civic Democrats who will have their representatives in the commission will in turn try to shift attention to scandals within the Social Democratic Party. So we will see a lot of mudslinging but nothing will come out of it and I think that at the end of this exercise even more people will have a problem trusting Czech politicians.”

So is it time for fresh blood in Czech politics, after all this is a long-term problem?

“I think that the time has come to infuse new blood into all the major parliamentary parties. The problem is that the current politicians are not willing to let new people in. Political parties in the Czech Republic function like firms which jealously guard their turfs and they are really not willing to let many new people in, at least not into positions of power so we will probably be stuck with this situation for some time to come and that is not a good message for the Czech Republic.”