Six ministers seen exiting Czech Cabinet

A sweeping Cabinet reshuffle is said to be on the horizon; Czech Position maps out the cases pro and con for specific ministers to go

Dobeš, Pospíšil, Heger, Kubice, Kocourek a Vondra. Hned šestice ministrů na odstřel? foto: © ČESKÁ POZICE, Jiří Bušek, ČTKČeská pozice

Dobeš, Pospíšil, Heger, Kubice, Kocourek a Vondra. Hned šestice ministrů na odstřel?

Justice, Education, Interior, Health and Defense: Five ministries whose leaders are most frequently mentioned as likely candidates for the chopping block. In recent weeks, numerous politicians and state officials have told Czech Position that a Cabinet reshuffle is looming while noting that Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) himself is not pushing for the dismissal of any ministers.

Nečas, often criticized as a weak leader, did show he is capable of such a move, though, with the surprise and swift sacking of Agriculture Minister Ivan Fuksa ahead of the party congress of the ODS, the senior partner in the government coalition with TOP 09 and Public Affairs (VV), in October. Speculation that arose at the time that more heads will roll has been kept alive in part because Nečas did not rule it out; perhaps it was his way of keeping the ministers on their toes.

According to well-placed sources in government circles, those most likely to go are three ODS ministers — Jiří Pospíšil (Justice), Alexandr Vondra (Defense) and Leoš Heger (Health) — as well as the unaffiliated Jan Kubice (Interior), who has himself asked to be recalled. The government could also try to sack VV’s Josef Dobeš (Education), but he is close to Czech President Václav Klaus.

The list was expanded last week to include another ODS man, Martin Kocourek (Industry and Trade), on news that his mother invested an unexplained sum of more than Kč 16 million which is now under investigation by the central bank and other authorities, back in 2008 when he was on the board of state-controlled power group ČEZ.

Previously, Kocourek had stood in good stead with Nečas, but due to media pressure, the prime minister had little choice but to demand a full explanation (which he is due to hear on Tuesday) of how the minister’s mother came to get that money and place it with dodgy investment group Key Investments, and he will be under pressure to recall him if there is a hint of implausibility (or ethical impropriety) to the story. TOP 09 ministers (Finance, Foreign Affairs) appear secure but Leoš Heger (Health) does not enjoy quite the same status.

TOP 09 ministers (Finance, Foreign Affairs) appear secure in their positions. A number of politicians confirmed speculation that TOP 09 man Leoš Heger (Health) does not enjoy quite the same status. Under an agreement between the Nečas wing of the ODS with Vít Bárta (himself an ex-Transport Minister, under suspicion of having bribed his fellow party MPs), the de facto leader of Public Affairs (VV), the smallest party in the coalition government, VV could get the Defense and Justice posts while the ODS would pick up Education.

On the surface, this arrangement makes no sense for Nečas – apart from getting rid of Dobeš — so observers are left to guess at his motivation; it appears that it is Bárta who is pushing the prime minister for this arrangement. In any case, the Cabinet reshuffle will not come in one fell swoop (there will be no “night of the long knives”), party sources and others say, with the fate of individual ministers still subject to much debate.

An education, or lessons in law

Jiří Pospíšil (Justice), an ODS vice chairman, is considered the center-right party’s media star. He is regularly named among the most popular politicians in public opinion polls and appears in televised discussions pitted against his counterpart from the main opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD), Jiří Dientsbier. Even so, he is not one of the untouchables, with calls for his dismissal coming from within the ranks of the ODS itself. While for some Pospíšil is seen as a dandy more concerned about his public image than on policy, for others he is a dangerous zealot in pursuit of justice.

While for some Pospíšil is seen as a dandy more concerned about his public image than about policy, for others he is a dangerous zealot in pursuit of justice. Chief Prosecutor Pavel Zeman, whom Pospíšil appointed, has embarked on an anti-corruption crusade with unprecedented vigor. Some in the ODS were none too pleased by his recall of the Chief Prosecutor in Prague, Vlastimil Rampula, nor the impending departure of his key deputy, Libor Grygárek.

Pospíšil further clashed with the prime minister over planned changes in the law on the State Prosecutor. It appears the minister is holding on to his seat thanks to support from the legal community, which perceives his tenure in office as beneficial. But if he were to go, who would replace him? The name most often put forth is Prague ODS deputy Marek Benda, who is a loyal member of the Nečas camp.

Perhaps more realistic, though, would be Karolína Peake (VV), the current deputy prime minister tasked with coordinating the fight against corruption. Were this to happen, the smallest party in the governing coalition would gain enormous influence over the judiciary. Two things stand in the way: the prime minister would look foolish to have twice replaced ministers from his own party within such a short time, and it is unclear what he stands to gain. Bárta and Nečas would also be at pains to explain why they bothered to create a separate bureaucratic grouping for Peake if she would only be in that role for a few short months.

Klaus’ protégé left in peace?

There is also talk that Peake could take over the Justice Ministry and Pospíšil take over the Education Ministry from Josef Dobeš (VV), whose tenure got off to a bad start with scandals over bonuses to under-qualified (though in some cases rather attractive) assistants and his choice of advisor in the form of Ladislav Bátora, a controversial and outspoken right-wing extremist who sparked the most recent coalition crisis. Pospíšil has close ties to the academic community; he was substitute dean of the Faculty of Law at the troubled University of West Bohemia (ZČU) in 2010 and 2009, and has been outspoken on the need for reforming the sector.

“It’s my personal motto and opinion that education is one of the more tangible assets. The ODS is now the only political party that has a clear idea, for example, of what direction to take Czech universities. We have clearly worked out a reform program for higher education,” Pospíšil told the party congress in October. “We know how to finance universities. We know how to diversify and transform the high schools. We should present these ideas to the public. We should pursue these things, even though at the moment we have no responsibility for the Education Ministry.”

Inside the ODS, however, there is little political will to force the current education minister out. Nečas would need to take on President Václav Klaus, who has made no secret of his high regard for Dobeš, calling him the best education minister in modern Czech history. While that may be music to the ears of VV paymaster Bárta, the general public have quite a low opinion of Dobeš, and the party is currently predicted from opinion polls to  garner just two percent of the popular vote, and so not return to parliament.

Who will rule the police – and Česká pošta?

A trusted Czech Position source has said Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa (ODS) is waiting in the wings. The Interior Ministry, of course, is among the most powerful, and its head is repeatedly on the list of most-endangered ministers. But this may not always be due to its control over the police forces; it also controls Česká pošta, the state-owned postal services, for which major structural changes are afoot. Among ODS deputies last week rumors were circulating that Interior Minister Jan Kubice (unaffiliated) is on the way out in favor of ODS man Boris Šťastný — who did not exclude the possibility but claimed ignorance. A trusted Czech Position source has said Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa (ODS) is waiting in the wings.

Why remove Kubice? There’s the rush of elite police detectives who have handed in their walking papers out of frustration over the workload, sense of futility and low pay. Then there is the failure to draw EU subsidies for the forthcoming police reform, which should contribute to the shrinking of staff and capacity. On the other hand, Kubice, though not a party member, had proven a loyal member of the Nečas Cabinet. In exchange for a sensitive post it would be possible to resume discussion within the coalition on whether ODS should be allowed to gain control over the police.

O, Canada

It is the ProMoPro case that could prove to be Vondra’s Achilles’ heel.

Finally, there’s Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra (ODS), who appeared comfortable at the party congress in October, despite news he had had an extramarital affair with Senator Veronika Vrecionová (ODS) and is the real father of her now 19-year-old son. He also appears to be in the good graces of President Klaus, who has publically praised his efforts at reforming the Czech Army.

It is the ProMoPro case – with a dozen people associated with the contracts during the Czech EU Presidency in 2009, under his watch as Deputy PM for EU Affairs — that could prove to be Vondra’s Achilles’ heel. He offered to quit in April, but Nečas refused fearing greater complications for the recently restructured Cabinet of the coalition government. Vondra dismisses rumors of his becoming the next ambassador to Canada as disinformation.