Second biggest party could be facing extinction

Zdenek Altner, photo: CTK

The Social Democrats, the second biggest party in the country, may be facing extinction. A lawyer who represented them in court seven years ago says he is owed billions of crowns and is willing to take legal action against the party. But if the Social Democrats had to pay the sum, which amounts to over 880 million US dollars, they would be forced to file for bankruptcy. Dita Asiedu reports:

Zdenek Altner,  photo: CTK
In 2000, Czech Lawyer Zdenek Altner helped the Social Democrats win back the ownership of the Lidovy Dum party headquarters in the centre of Prague. From the contract that Mr Altner had signed with the party, he was to be paid 93 million crowns for his services. But now, seven years later, Mr Altner says he has yet to get what he is owed and, with interest and penalties, it has risen to 19 billion crowns. To verify his claims, Mr Altner has asked the leader of the Social Democrats, Jiri Paroubek, to publicise the contract signed.

But Jiri Paroubek has set his own terms. He says the Social Democratic Party would transfer 126 million crowns to Mr Altner immediately if he agreed to an out-of-court settlement. After that, the party would also make the contract public. Mr Altner rejects the offer:

"If I hadn't won the Lidovy Dum case in 2000, the Social Democrats would be in financial turmoil. I will not give my demands up in advance. I insist that a debtor has to pay up. He should pay and not blackmail the creditor by saying he would only pay under certain conditions."

Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Mr Altner's response: "send at least 165 million crowns to my Swiss bank account and I will consider negotiations". But that has been rejected by Mr Paroubek. He says former party leader Milos Zeman should take the responsibility as he entered into a contract that was clearly disadvantageous to the party. Instead of the usual 0.03 percent of interest that the party should have been penalised for every day that the debt was not paid, the contract binds the Social Democrats to a penalty of 0.3 percent:

"I cannot understand how Milos Zeman could have signed such a contract. It is a grave error. I expect him to, firstly, apologise to the Social Democrats. Secondly, when he writes his next book he should send the proceeds towards paying the Social Democrats' legal bills."

The Social Democrats have been careful not to comment on the issue but there is speculation that the leadership is worried about the party's future. Unofficially, some say it is secretly preparing for the worst by looking into the possibility of forming a new party. But Mr Paroubek rejects any such speculation. He insists that his party will not be forced to file for bankruptcy. "If that were the case I would not be taking for four days off," he said on Wednesday.