Welfare abuse claim proves one scandal too many for Jiri Cunek

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK

Jiri Cunek is stepping down. One of the most controversial figures in Czech politics announced at a special news conference on Thursday morning that as of next Wednesday he will no longer serve as either deputy prime minister or regional development minister. Previously the Christian Democrats leader had brazened out a number of affairs, though a scandal which broke this week seems to have finally put paid to Mr Cunek.

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
One Czech News Agency headline on Thursday afternoon said it all: Cunek's exit from government has long-term causes. That is indeed the case: Jiri Cunek had managed to survive a number of scandals before finally quitting as deputy prime minister and regional development minister.

Mr Cunek was unknown at the national level until he last year moved Romany rent-defaulters out of the north Moravian town of Vsetin where he was mayor. In a TV interview he compared the expulsions to lancing a boil, a line which, on top of the evictions themselves, led to accusations of racism.

But rather than spelling the end of his political career, that controversy seemed to provide his ticket to the top, as the 48-year-old won election to the Senate with a broad margin. His meteoric rise continued when he was elected chairman of the Christian Democrats, the second biggest party in the current coalition government.

It wasn't long, however, before Jiri Cunek found himself in hot water. Allegations emerged that he had accepted bribes of around half a million crowns from a real estate firm while he was still mayor of Vsetin. There were calls for him to step down at least temporarily, but Mr Cunek kept grinning to the cameras and proclaiming his innocence. Some cried foul when a police investigation into the bribery allegations was dropped earlier this year.

This week Mr Cunek has again been all over the front pages, after a Czech Television investigative programme accused him of collecting social welfare in the 1990s while at the same time having millions of crowns in different bank accounts.

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
The politician immediately reverted to type, maintaining his innocence and refusing to step down. But the wheels were this time starting to come off the Cunek Express, with senators from his own Christian Democrats calling on him to go, and party deputies due to discuss the matter early next week.

Speaking at a special news conference on Thursday morning, Jiri Cunek said he was stepping down because of the supreme state attorney's stated desire to reopen the bribery allegation case. He told reporters he wished to ensure that investigation was independent. Mr Cunek also said he intended to keep his seat in the Senate and stay on as head of the Christian Democrats.