Public Affairs: Inane Clown Posse

Scandal has never been far from Public Affairs since it entered parliament and the governing coalition nine months ago

Petr Bušta | 07.04.2011

The junior coalition party Public Affairs (VV) appears in disarray with the latest in a series of scandals spawning speculation that the junior party in the coalition government could split, implode, or be shut out of the coalition government.

Even if the 24-seat strong parliamentary party comes through the latest scandal intact, another bruising encounter is on the horizon with party elections in May. Underperforming chairman, Interior Minister Radek John, looked vulnerable in light of the lengthening list of scandals and the party’s declining popularity in recent opinion polls.

Before the “cash-for-loyalty” affair, Radek’s main rival for the party chairmanship was Transport Minister Vít Bárta, the first deputy chairman — who has long been said to be the party’s de facto leader, in large part due to his role as its main benefactor/financier. Long suspected of unorthodox and authoritarian practices, allegations surfaced this week that Bárta has been rewarding his party colleagues for their loyalty — and silence — with cash payments. Regardless of their validity, this new scandal will not help his candidacy to unseat John, or the party’s own fortunes.

The main opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) are having a field day. “A government member who is suspected of having bribed his deputies by means of envelopes with cash should not really stay in government,” ČSSD chairman Bohuslav Sobotka said, in calling for Bárta’s resignation as interior minister. “This is in the interest of any government that is trying, or should at least be trying, to maintain elementary trustworthiness among citizens.”

The man who made the “cash-for-loyalty” claims, Parliamentary Deputy Jaroslav Škárka — himself a VV deputy chairman and the party’s statuary representative until his off-the-record comments were published by the weekly Respekt — says he has received some Kč 500,000, essentially in bribes, from the party. Earlier, Škárka said the money came from Bárta’s own pocket, but was paid out in cash by VV deputies Radim Vysloužil and Michal Babák, who of course both deny having acted as bagmen.

As statuary representative, Škárka signs all documents relating to the party’s finances. He claimed to have received a cash payment of Kč 170,000 last week for keeping quiet about strife within the VV parliamentary caucus. While Respekt has said it has other sources confirming Bárta’s cash payments, Czech Position thought it worth taking stock of Public Affairs’ many trials, tribulations and outright oddball goings on in the short time that it has been in existence and in government: The Škárka affair is only the latest in a long line of this inane, clownish posse’s self-inflicted wounds.

Pre-election aperitif …

Vigilante patrols

Shortly before the general election last July, VV attempted to organize so-called social-intervention patrols aimed at reducing crime on the streets. Critics were quick to draw comparisons with vigilante style initiatives by the Communist Party and the Nazis. Nevertheless, controversy over the project was soon drowned out by more interesting details from within the prospective new party. 

Statuary rights

First of all it emerged that VV chairman Radek John was not legally entitled to sign contracts and agreements on behalf of the party or act as its statuary representative. These rights were held by none other deputy chairman Jaroslav Škárka. Although VV was quick to sort out this absurdity, some observers concluded that John’s real position was more as the party’s figurehead rather than its leader and that the real boss was the party’s main paymaster, Vít Bárta, who is now the Minister of Transport.

Kč 7 million disobedience fines

Prior to the general election, VV candidates were obliged to sign an agreement pledging obedience and loyalty. The agreement stated that if a parliamentary deputy defects to another party he/she would have to pay a fine of Kč 7 million. They also promised to vote only “in line with the position of the [party’s] club of deputies or in line with the stance of the political party.” However, this clause likely contravenes the Czech Constitution regarding individual rights of lawmakers.  VV therefore  added an amendment stating that in the case of a dispute, the Constitution takes precedence over the internal party agreement.

Internal election farce

VV organized an Internet referendum of its supporters on whether the party should enter the coalition with the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP 09 parties. Members registered on the party website prior to the general election were entitled to vote. Nevertheless, due to a technical fault or unknown glitch, they had to reregister. What’s more, those who voted against coalition participation were informed that their vote clashed with the party’s adopted position and were invited to vote again.

In power, Public Affairs sought to grab headlines but often found these were for the wrong reasons:   

Vít Bárta in the driver’s seat …

In a blaze of publicity, Minister of Transport Vít Bárta ordered a halt to all railway construction works soon after taking office last August. Two months later, he discretely ordered work resumed. The ministry said that the construction companies involved had agreed to give discounts. However, the construction companies denied this, and said savings had been made by canceling certain elements in projects’  documentation. Such a move can only be made by project planners and not contractors. So Bárta’s claims of success were exposed as a PR trick.            

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