Barta bribery accusations magnify coalition divisions and possible collapse
An alleged bribery scandal has triggered a government crisis, but analysts and Parliament insiders point to a possible Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Trojan Horse within the now discredited Public Affairs (VV) party as the real catalyst for events in recent days.
Three VV deputies have either resigned or been ejected from the party after accusations April 7 from Deputy Kristýna Kočí that Transport Minister Vít Bárta – the powerful financier behind VV – gave her 500,000 Kč to keep the particulars of party financing a secret. Those accusations came just days after another deputy, Jaroslav Škárka, said Bárta paid him 55,000 Kč per month for his silence. Bárta insists both payments were loans.
But signs point to a crisis that has been in development much longer.
Kočí began approaching people within VV to defect or form their own political group as early as January, according to one VV MP, who requested anonymity for fear of disrupting the sensitive ongoing coalition negotiations. The ODS offered Kočí, 26, a choice between the education minister position or a spot as a member of European Parliament if she could deliver seven VV defectors, which would allow the coalition government to continue without VV as a coalition partner, the MP said.
“Kočí is intellectually close to the ODS,” said Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University. “It is clear [ODS Vice Chairman Petr] Tluchoř was meeting with Kočí, but I don’t dare guess how far it was planned and organized by the ODS’s MP club or the prime minister.”
Kočí denies that she has been working with the ODS in recent months.
“This is not true,” she wrote via text message to The Prague Post. “I didn’t get any similar offer, and I didn’t persuade any VV MP to be a turncoat. I myself am not a turncoat; I will still enforce the program of VV. I was expelled [from the party] without having a chance to defend myself and before the results of investigation are known.”
However, an April 7 one-on-one meeting between Kočí and Prime Minister Petr Nečas, chairman of the ODS, would also seemingly point to a pre-existing relationship.
Political analyst Jiří Pehe, a longtime VV critic, said he has little doubt about the dirty nature of the money being circulated by Bárta but nonetheless said there was more before this sudden outburst of scandal.
“These incidents lead me to believe the timing is absolutely not an accident,” Pehe said. “But something launched for a particular purpose.”
Rumors about VV, Bárta and the party’s ties to the private security firm formerly owned by Bárta, ABL, have swirled since as early as during the run-up to general elections in May 2010.
“The two other parties in the government felt they could use the skeletons in the closet to keep VV under control,” Pehe said. “On the one hand, they would have 118 votes [in the Chamber of Deputies], and on the other hand, they could use it against [VV] if they misbehaved.”
Among the possible moves by VV that have agitated the ODS are changes to the police department, which is overseen by Interior Minister Radek John (VV). During the coalition negotiations in spring 2010, the ODS fought hard to gain control of the Interior Ministry before ceding control to John. His dismissal of the police chief last year as well as changes to how the anti-corruption division is run have sparked condemnation from the ODS and was the flashpoint of an earlier government crisis at the turn of the new year. It is the fight to control the Interior Ministry that remains at the heart of tensions between the ODS and VV, Pehe said.
While the root causes of the turmoil remain murky at best, as of press time, the likely results are equally unclear. None of the three coalition parties – ODS, TOP 09 and VV – stands to benefit from early elections, as any poll would certainly deliver victory to the opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD). Bárta has already offered his resignation as transport minister. A move by Nečas to oust two other VV Cabinet members, Interior Minister Radek John and Education Minister Josef Dobeš, was met with a sharp rebuke from President Václav Klaus April 11, further weakening Nečas’ already troubled premiership and prompting criticism that Klaus was overstepping his constitutional mandate.
“Nečas appears to be a weak leader yet again because he’s forced to make an agreement with VV,” said Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University.
“Klaus is doing what he has always done: maximizing his political influence to be the actual conductor of the situation,” political analyst Bohumil Doležal said. “Although Klaus is a very rational being, emotions also play their part. He essentially hates [ODS Defense Minister] Alexandr Vondra. The next time the prime minister goes to the president, he will bring him Vondra’s head on a golden platter.”
John, who has no direct connection with the bribery allegations, has said he would be willing to step down if Vondra and Agriculture Minister Ivan Fuksa (both from the ODS) and Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09) also resigned. Vondra has been under pressure in recent weeks to resign in the wake of a separate series of scandals but has seen his position strongly defended by Nečas. On April 11, Vondra publicly offered his resignation, citing a need to keep the government intact. Kalousek, on the other hand, said no members of TOP 09 would be willing to resign from the Cabinet as part of any government shakeup.
Making a sacrifice
The only way the government can survive is for each party to sacrifice some of its own ministers as part of a larger shakeup, Pehe said, thus allowing all of the parties to save face.
This is a strategy Nečas has alluded to in recent days.
“There are 14 ministers. Theoretically, any of them may leave. … I’ll replace some, and I won’t replace others,” he said.
Rumors circulating just before press time had John moving on to head another ministry in a Cabinet shakeup.
VV has 24 deputies in Parliament’s lower house; the coalition government controls a total of 118 seats in the 200-seat chamber. Even if three expelled VV members – Kočí, Škárka and Deputy Stanislav Huml – are willing to support the government, four more votes are needed to obtain a 101-seat majority. At present, the ODS controls five ministries, TOP 09 five and VV four.
As late as April 7, Kočí was insisting half of VV’s deputies were preparing to resign from the party, but such a mass exodus has yet to materialize, and indeed, party members seem to have redoubled their loyalty.
“We will continue,” said VV Deputy Lenka Andrysová. “I’m also sure all this doesn’t give us the best reputation, but I think we have time to change the public’s view.”
While Bárta has resigned from his ministry post, he said he will still run for the VV party chairmanship in May. He will face John and Deputy Karolina Peake in an online vote among party loyalists.
Even before this recent spate of scandals, most analysts thought VV had little chance of even making it into Parliament in the next elections, but now the “damage to VV is huge,” Pehe said.
While some analysts point to possible benefits for TOP 09, as the party again remains on the sidelines of sniping between the ODS and VV and unconnected to any major scandal, few see these latest developments as anything less than an existential crisis for the Nečas government.
“I don’t see anyone benefiting from this except the Social Democrats and the Communists,” Pehe said.
– Filip Šenk and Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.
Chronology of a collapse
April 3 Weekly Respekt reports VV Deputy Chairman Jaroslav Škárka said he was bribed by Transport Minister Vít Bárta
April 4 VV deputies accuse the Plzeň branch of the ODS of intentionally spurring the scandal
April 5 VV expels Škárka from the party
April 6 Bárta admits he gave money to Škarka but says it was a loan
April 7 VV Deputy Kristýna Kočí meets with Prime Minster Petr Nečas of the ODS, and says Bárta gave her 500,000 Kč
April 8 Bárta resigns as transport minister; Nečas calls for resignation of John and Education Minister Josef Dobeš of VV
April 11 President Václav Klaus rejects Nečas' Cabinet reshuffle proposal and asks him to come up with a plan for how his government can continue. A meeting between leaders of the three coalition parties produces no agreement on how to move forward
Nečas' about face
In a March 30 interview...
"I consider it generally unacceptable that members of my government [call for the resignation of other member of the Cabinet], whoever it is. And so I also told government members that in the future it will mean any such minister will have to resign."
In an April 4 statement...
"We do not intend to give any ultimatum to our coalition partners, especially not via the media."
At an April 8 press conference...
"To me, it is absolutely clear these people have to leave these high positions, and therefore together with handling Transport Minister [Vít] Bárta's resignation, I will propose the suspension of Minister [Radek] John and Minister [Josef] Dobeš."