As recently as the morning of May 14, people at the headquarters of the Social Democrats (ČSSD) could be forgiven for thinking that the doors were opening to the Straka Academy, the seat of the Czech parliament, based on the party’s strong showing in opinion polls (30 percent) at the expense of the center-right coalition.
“The only thing that could harm the ČSSD would be disputes around the nomination of our candidate for president. This is what all of our political opponents are hoping for. They are waiting for us to make a mistake. It’s their only hope,” party leader Bohuslav Sobotka said in an interview with the left-leaning daily Právo that day.
But before the comrades could begin squabbling over Jiří Dienstbier Jr., their candidate in the direct presidential elections who is a somewhat radical choice for the conservative tastes of the party, the ČSSD was dealt a severe blow: the arrest that evening of MP David Rath, the central Bohemian governor, on corruption charges. The chairperson of the lower house (Chamber of Deputies), Miroslava Němcová (Civic Democrats, ODS), had given her consent to the police for Rath to be held on remand.
Shocked ČSSD supporters wanted to know whether Němcová would have reached the same decision if the case had involved not the tough-talking critic of rightwing governments like Rath but rather an MP from one of the governing parties. Let’s assume the answer is yes, even though there is no proof for such an assumption, because no rightwing MP or senator has been caught “red-handed” while committing a serious criminal offense or in the immediate aftermath (Rath had millions in cash, an alleged bribe, on him at the time).
The former criminal investigator and now lawyer Václav Láska made the following observation on Czech public radio on May 16: although the police had had Rath and seven others in their sights for six months, this time round there had had been no leaks of their findings. Anyone who reads regular Czech newspaper reports regarding telephone tapping, information gleaned from stakeouts, and other such material might well ask themselves whether this was mere coincidence.
And they will ask themselves another question: why does all sorts of information get leaked to the Czech public from other cases and the arms of Lady Justice fail to reach the guilty parties? Why didn’t this happen this time? And why was the police investigation so perfectly executed?
The Kubice syndrome
The first reaction of the ČSSD to Rath’s arrest was hardly free of suspicion! On the morning of May 15, Sobotka, and his first vice-chairman, Michal Hašek, issued a statement in which they requested Police president Petr Lessy and Interior Minister Jan Kubice, to explain publicly and in detail the approach taken by the police in this case as quickly as possible: “We firmly believe that the police have everything backed up and documented and that there is no chance of this being the start of the pre-election campaign in Central Bohemia. However, if an offense has genuinely been committed, the ČSSD abides by the principle of all being equal under the law, and this is true of all its members without exception.”
Sobotka and Hašek are lawyers by training, and it must have been clear to them that in this phase of criminal proceedings neither the police president nor the district attorney could explain anything “publicly, in detail and as quickly as possible,” and that Kubice was in the same position since he could not be involved in the investigation. The truth is that the ČSSD is unlikely to believe the interior minister. In spring 2006, four days prior to the “big” elections, as head of the anti-corruption division Kubice had informed members of the Defense and Security Committee of the links between the criminal underworld and the political sphere, including certain representatives of the ČSSD.
Through the “solicitude” of two members of the committee the “Kubice report” found its way into the hands of the media, and the leader of the ČSSD at that time, Jiří Paroubek, was absolutely convinced that it had damaged his party in the elections and was responsible for the party coming a close second to the ODS. The “Kubice syndrome” is still fresh in the minds of ČSSD members, and so it is no surprise that not only Sobotka and Hašek, but many others in the party who were shocked by Rath’s arrest suspected that this was a fabricated attempt to discredit the Social Democrats shortly before three important elections.
However, when news of Rath’s arrest became public, the spokesman of the anti-corruption police, Jaroslav Ibehej, and the Ústí nad labem district attorney, Lenka Bradáčová, who is supervising the case, provided some basic information and took the wind out of the sails of Lidový dům, the Social Democrat’s headquarters. That afternoon the ČSSD vice chairman Jiří Dienstbier, Jr. gave a statement saying that Rath should relinquish all his party and public functions if the information regarding his alleged involvement in bribery were to be confirmed. In the end this is what Rath did.
Sobotka added his own opinion, to the effect that if such serious accusations had been levelled against Rath, “He cannot figure on our list of candidates for the next elections. It will now be for the leadership of the Central Bohemian social democrats to find a new leader for the regional elections.” Later, Sobotka said that it would be appropriate for Rath to resign from the position of governor and from the Central Bohemian local authorities. This happened on May 16, when the police took Rath, now remanded in custody so as to prevent collusion, to the headquarters of the regional authorities for a brief meeting. It was the day of Rath’s resignations.
The vice chairman of the Central Bohemian ČSSD and deputy governor, Miloš Petera, informed journalists in the evening that Rath had also asked for his party membership to be annulled. The former presidium of the ČSSD would have been content if Rath had merely suspended his party membership until a verdict was reached. However, the party is very concerned about the damage being done to its image, and so over the next two days there was considerable pressure put on Rath to distance himself from the party as much as possible. In any case, isolated in a remand cell, Rath must have concluded that his days in the Social Democrats were over. It is difficult to state for sure who has lost most, Rath or the ČSSD.
A short political CV
Rath was brought into the social democrats by Jiří Paroubek. He was originally a doctor and businessman in the health industry, and had a colorful history. From 1991 to 1994 he was a member of the ODS, but was disappointed in both the party and above all party co-founder Václav Klaus, now the Czech president, as he later explained. He then moved over to the Free Democratic Liberal National Social Party (1996 to 1997), the third incarnation of the Civic Forum (OF) and finally the Civic Movement. The vice-chairman of this party was none other than Jiří Dienstbier, Sr.! Rath then took a break from party politics to concentrate on other activities, and joined the ČSSD in 2006. He became a household name during this break from party activities.
In 1995 he founded the Trade Union of Doctors (LOK), at the head of which he proved himself a strong critic of the situation in the health industry and organised several strikes. Three years later, Rath became president of the Czech Medical Chamber (ČLK), interestingly enough in the footsteps of the current mayor Prague, Bohuslav Svoboda (ODS). He radicalized the ČLK and gradually a strong caucus arose of members opposed to his manipulative and arrogant methods. However, the chamber failed to overthrow Rath, and he remained at the head of the ČLK until his appointment as minister of health in November 2005.
Klaus only appointed Rath as minister upon the second request of the then premier Paroubek, since he regarded the simultaneous holding of the functions of president of the ČLK and minister of health as non-constitutional. In the end, Rath had to quit the leadership of the ČLK, but not before he had publicly insulted the president, calling him a fickle old man, a monarch, and a stubborn child. One wouldn’t be surprised if David Rath regretted this at present. He allegedly faces up to twelve years in prison for accepting a bribe and for putting the financial interests of the European Union at risk. It would appear that he and his accomplices appropriated EU regional funds for themselves.
On the evening of May 16, Klaus said that it was commendable that the police had acted without compromise in the case of Rath. The head of state is concerned that this case will receive coverage not only in the Czech Republic but in neighboring countries, which he regards as “very unfortunate.” If Rath had not spent years taking pot-shots at Klaus, he would at least have the glimmer of a hope of presidential pardon. Okay, he allegedly accepted a bribe. But maybe this was because he is a euro-skeptic and a nationalist and wished to squeeze EU funds with the aim of weakening the EU as a whole. Whatever, it’s now too late to speak of what might have been.
If despite all of this Rath did not end up in prison for years, he could easily get by without the approval of the ČSSD. Rath is an educated, clever, shrewd man with a quick wit and medicine is not the only way he could make a living. However, he would leave a gap in the Social Democrats.
Since the start of 2007, when Paroubka failed to get the ČSSD into any form of government and the party found itself in opposition, Rath has become a prized article for the party. When the ČSSD found itself in difficulty they invited the kraken to the podium, i.e. the sharp-tongued doctor. The kraken is a legendary sea monster of gigantic proportions capable of sinking ships, which according to several reports used to be spotted off the coast of Norway and Iceland; Rath used to be spotted in Prague’s Lesser Quarter in the seat of the Chamber of Deputies, where he attacked members of the government without mercy via coarse witticisms.
Rath’s duels with Minister of Finance Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09) were celebrated, and Kalousek now finds himself peerless in this respect. Rath was involved in endless lawsuits with the former Minister of Health, Tomáš Julínek (ODS), MPs (and today MEPs) of the same party, the pioneers of IZIP, Miroslav Ouzký and Milan Cabrnoch, the former governor of Central Bohemia, Petr Bendl (ODS), Miroslav Macek, an important representative of the ODS for many years, and many others. Even though he often lost, he kept on taking legal action.
He found himself before various courts for having received a slap from Macek at a meeting of the Czech Dental Chamber in front of TV cameras for insulting Macek’s wife at that time. Though Rath comes from a good family, in politics he often acted boorishly and tastelessly.
An ambitious man
Gradually things became too much for parts of the ČSSD, not to speak of its more moderately minded voters. Prior to the May 2010 elections in Central Bohemia, Rath was involved in a highly personal dispute with the ex-minister and at that time vice-chairman of the ČSSD, Milan Urban, who threatened to withdraw his name from the list of candidates if Rath was also on it. In the end both remained candidates. However, after the second-placed Rath overtook Urban thanks to second-preference votes, the tension between the two again increased.
Rath enjoyed great support from Paroubek, who after the May 2010 elections and his resignation from the head of the ČSSD said in a television debate he believed Rath could one day be leader of the social democrats. In the end Rath did not even stand for vice-chairman at the party conference in spring 2011. Sobotka, for whom Rath had drummed up support, had to sacrifice him if he was not to demolish the hard-won agreement with the Hašek-led wing, on the basis of which Sobotka was elected chairman of the ČSSD.
Nevertheless, Rath is a highly capable and ambitious man and would be unlikely to allow himself to be pushed to the sidelines at the next party conference. It’s a cruel thing to say openly in his situation, but there are quite a few people at the top of the social democrats who would be happy to see Rath serving a term. But will this bring an end to Rath-related problems? Best not to bet on it.
The chairwoman of the Chamber of Deputies, Miroslava Němcová (ODS), now has a problem. At around 11:00 p.m. on May 14 she gave her consent to Rath’s arrest and the next day handed over the police file to the Mandate and Immunity Committee chaired by, Sobotka, the ČSSD leader. Němcová was amazed that he only showed an interest in the file on May 16 and that instead of studying it on the premises of the Chamber of Deputies, as is customary, the file ended up in Lidový dům. But it was addressed to Sobotka, came the response, though this is a poor excuse.
The recommendation for the meeting of Parliament, which begins on June 5 and will either confirm Němcová’s actions or will rule out Rath being prosecuted in this matter for good, will not be given by Bohuslav Sobotka, but by the Mandate and Immunity Committee. However, it is not difficult to work out why the file found its way to Lidový dům. There it can be studied by the legal experts of the ČSSD, whereas in the Chamber of Deputies it would be inaccessible to most of them. However, one thing needs to be pointed out: if this institution had rules governing its files, like most other offices, the file on Rath’s case would probably have lain in the safe of the committee and not travelled anywhere.
Another problem that Němcová might face relates to the possibility that the accused (and, as the case may be, convicted) Rath might wish to participate in the meeting of the Czech of Deputies and the committees on which he sits. Some constitutional lawyers claim that this is out of the question. However, at the time that Jiří Čunek, a senator for the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), was prosecuted, others said the opposite and warned of the loophole in the Constitution and the rules of procedure of the chambers of parliament.
In a special statement, Němcová claimed that Rath could not address such a request to her. Instead his participation in meetings of parliament would be a matter for the courts, the state attorney’s office, the police and the prison service. At the same time the police would apparently have to accompany Rath to parliament and guard him in the meeting room, which would not be without its problems. Němcová says this is only a theoretical possibility because if Rath were able to speak to the microphone during such a meeting, this could involve influencing witnesses and parties to the criminal proceedings and would be at odds with the reason he is being held on remand.
The meeting of the Mandate and Immunity Committee which will discuss the Rath case will be a simpler matter. According to Němcová either Rath’s lawyer may participate, or the committee could visit Rath in prison and hear his testimony there. Unfortunately, the chairwoman of the Chamber of Deputies did not cite any legal opinion in her Wednesday morning statement. She might certainly have consulted constitutional specialists and must have requested the opinion of parliamentary legislators, but it is unlikely she could have managed more in the short time from Rath’s arrest.
However, only the courts are authorised to interpret the law, including the rules of procedure of the Chamber of Deputies, not to speak of the Constitution. And because it is not written in the Constitution that being taken into remand or even being convicted restricts or dissolves an MP’s mandate, in the case of the dynamic Rath it is quite possible to imagine that he will express an interest in participating at the meeting of the Chamber of Deputies.
If Rath acts in character, as an experienced showman he would not want to pass up a great opportunity to command the centre stage. And if he is stubborn, Němcová’s appeal to the ČSSD to persuade him to surrender his mandate as MP will fall on deaf ears. Because Rath undoubtedly well knows (and in any case it is written in the Constitution), that the mandate belongs to an MP and not a party, and that a party’s wishes are not decisive for an MP.