Battlefield report: General Nečas lacks ammunition

The largest coalition party, the ODS, faces two fundamental problems: limited access to the levers of power and a weak leader

Martin Shabu 27.4.2011

Životaschopnost kabinetu zásadním způsobem ovlivňuje nedostatek autority všech tří předsedů koaličních stran. foto: © ČTKČeská pozice

Životaschopnost kabinetu zásadním způsobem ovlivňuje nedostatek autority všech tří předsedů koaličních stran.

The Civic Democrats (ODS) — the largest party in the governing coalition — have two crucial problems: limited access to the levers of power and a weak party leader, Prime Minister Petr Nečas.

Let’s look at the first problem first. The powerful Ministry of the Interior, which deals with sensitive issues such as the ProMoPro affair and the investigation into alleged corruption by former defense minister Martin Barták, is under the control of Public Affairs (VV) – the third largest party in the coalition.

Thanks to Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, TOP 09 — of which he is deputy chairman — has a good overview of suspicious financial transactions and tax evasion. The ministry’s departments include the Financial Analytical Unit, and it was it was this taskforce that launched the investigation into allegedly overpriced audiovisual and interpreting services provided by the company ProMoPro during the Czech presidency of the EU in first half of 2009.

Kalousek has also threatened the “godfathers” from the main opposition center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) and ODS that the ministry will scrutinize their parties’ financial operations from the past few years.

The ODS position

So what was left over for ODS when the key ministries were divided up by the coalition partners? The ODS seized the defense and justice ministries. In both cases, one of the party’s deputy chairmen took up the post. Through supervisory control of the public prosecutors, Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil (ODS) should be able to influence who oversees the investigation of specific cases, what exactly is investigated, where and how fast, or even postponement.

Yet, for the time being at least, Pospíšil is not perceived as being in a strong position. The young justice minister needed several months just to get rid of the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Renata Vesecká, who was primarily connected with the Jiří Čunek case.

In January, Vesecká was replaced by Pavel Zeman and the justice minister then began dismantling structures created by Vesecká, but this is the only battle Pospíšil has won so far. Another is in full swing: Pospíšil is insisting on the suspension of the Prague public prosecutor Vlastimil Rampula, who is overseeing the investigation of major scandals from previous years, and more recently the ProMoPro case, which is threatening to cost Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra (ODS) his job. It’s still not clear whether Nečas’s faction of the ODS will manage to install people in the Public Prosecutor’s Offices who would oversee specific investigations to ensure that the real culprits, whoever they may be, are brought to justice.

The one and only area which the ODS has under its full control is defense. The ministry, which is at the center of numerous corruption scandals under investigation, is also the department in which Vondra is trying to change the rules: within days Vondra is expected to submit a proposal to the government aimed at preventing military purchases through mediators. Primarily, these mediators are Omnipol and the MPI Group.

Whereas Omnipol’s former boss, Richard Háva, is a friend of Kalousek’s, the MPI Group has close relations with the ex-defense minister Barták, who resigned from his post as Kalousek’s deputy at the finance ministry on Monday. Barták has been investigation for allegedly attempting to solicit a bribe in connection with a defense ministry order of transport vehicles from the company Tatra.  

Considering what’s at stake, the speculation that Kalousek has decided to do battle with Vondra for very pragmatic reasons is not surprising. And another explosive situation is impending. Everyone is nervously awaiting the army report about the Spanish CASA transport planes, which in the past experienced technical problems. The planes did not meet the military’s requirements and the deal’s mediator, Omnipol, was not able to ensure that the deal to exchange Czech-made L-159 subsonic fighter aircraft for the CASA planes would be completed.

According to the weekly Respekt, Omnipol allegedly received a commission to the tune of Kč 890 million for the transaction. As a result of the CASA L-159 deal, the Czech Republic faces proceedings in the European Court of Justice on charges of breaking economic competition rules. Incidentally, the CASA contract was brokered by none other than Barták, deputy and later Minister of Defense.

The outlook for the next few weeks

One does not need to be a prophet to foresee further pitfalls awaiting the coalition partners in the near future. These relate to the economy, the battle for control of state enterprises, and gaining decision-making powers to issue gigantic government contracts. Let’s not be duped by the rhetoric: the coalition is far more divided on these issues than on contentious social, health and pension reforms.

  • The multi-billion crown “eco-tender” for clearing up environmental burdens predominantly from the Communist era has yet to be decided.
  • The restructuring of Česká pošta (Czech Post), in which all the governing parties would like to play a pivotal role, is under preparation.
  • The coalition doesn’t have a unified position on the future of the state forestry enterprise Lesy ČR (Forests of the Czech Republic).
  • There are no doubts that the decision on the tender for expansion of the Temelín nuclear power plant will be equally contentious.
  • The cabinet will have to reach a decision on the future of defenses for the Czech Republic’s airspace (the purchase or lease of fighter planes).

A prime minister without support

Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ (ODS) predicament is by no means idyllic; even within his own party his position is far from secure.

  • Following the emergence of the scandal involving former Environment Minister Pavel Drobil (ODS), Nečas yielded to pressure from the coalition partners and agreed to dismiss Drobil —a step many top ODS members did not commend him for.
  • A similar situation is looming with Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra. A personal friend, and also the Senator for the Litoměřice region, Vondra is among the people who actively solicited  votes for Nečas prior to last year’s ODS congress, thus assisting him to be elected as the ODS leader.
  • The Prime Minister fell out with the ODS’s Deputy Chairman Pavel Blažek at the end of last year over Lesy ČR and transferred his administrative duties within the party to Drobil.
  • Moreover, there is also the question of whether the Key Investments case will turn against the Minister of the Environment, Tomáš Chalupa. When he was mayor of Prague 6, the district administration transferred hundreds of millions of crowns to the brokerage to manage. The district is now striving to get the money back.
  • And let us not forget Miroslava Němcová, who turned down a ministerial post in the current government in favor of preparing her candidacy for the presidential election.
  • The role played by Jiří Pospíšil has been described above. While the Minister of Justice enjoys respect in the legal profession, he is not doing what’s being asked of him by the old structures within the ODS: He has not agreed to see to it that corruption cases are dropped and dubious methods of raising money for the party coffers.

In a nutshell, Nečas has no one in the party leadership to lean on and he has not succeeded in unifying the ODS. Yet every cloud has a silver lining and the political paradox is that, for the time being at least, nobody is strong enough to remove the leader since the party itself remains factionalized.

The last place for Nečas to seek support is the Castle. Yet the Prime Minister also has a problem with President Václav Klaus and communication between them is minimal. It was Klaus who, in the wake of the resignation of Drobil helped Nečas to keep the coalition together. The public still does not know what exactly the politicians agreed upon at the Castle. Yet Nečas’ coalition rivals Kalousek and Bárta are in frequent contact with Klaus. Should Nečas fail to renew similar communication beyond the framework of official meetings, he and the ODS will be detached from a decisive figure in Czech politics.

Currently, another such figure is Kalousek, who is recognized as the de facto boss of TOP 09. Kalousek may be well respected, unfortunately, yet he is not well acquainted with Czech realpolitik in which knowing someone else’s secrets and which media outlets to use to disclose them is the most important thing. As far as a situation report from the ProMoPro battlefield, a “ceasefire for reforms” remains wishful thinking.