August 14, 2013 2:30 pm

Czech anger rises amid fallout from sex and bribery scandal

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In a grubby sports bar on the far outskirts of the Czech capital, invectives start to fly when patrons are asked about their assessment of the country’s scandal-ridden ruling classes.

“They are all pigs. I don’t even know if I’m going to bother voting in the next election,” says Vaclav, a heavy-set pensioner pulling on a full glass of beer. “All we hear about is corruption and bureaucracy – I’ve had enough.”

His anger stems from the implosion of Czech politics following the collapse of Petr Necas’s centre-right government in a sex, bribery and spying scandal earlier this summer. The caretaker government appointed by Milos Zeman, the Czech president, has since failed to win a parliamentary vote of confidence and this week Jiri Rusnok, the interim prime minister, offered his resignation.

Parliament votes next week over whether to dissolve itself – something that looks increasingly probable – and snap elections are now likely for October or early November. However, Mr Rusnok will continue in office until a new government is formed.

The political turmoil is hitting the Czech Republic as it slowly emerges from a long downturn. Data released on Wednesday showed second-quarter growth of 0.7 per cent quarter-on-quarter, ending a recession that had dragged on for six quarters, the longest slump since the country of 10.5m people became independent in 1993.

The crisis was set off by Mr Necas, a colourless politician and a devout Roman Catholic in a largely atheist country who had gained the reputation as the “Mr Clean” of Czech politics. Heading the government since 2010 as leader of the conservative Civic Democratic party, he had vowed to end tight links between politicians and business that have given the Czech Republic one of the EU’s worst corruption perception rankings.

He was brought down when his mistress, confidante and chief of staff, Jana Nagyova, was implicated in getting military intelligence to spy on the premier’s wife. Ms Nagyova was also charged with bribery and abuse of power in a back-room deal that saw three MPs trade political favours for lucrative jobs in state companies.

Mr Necas’s fall allowed the wily Mr Zeman, a leading centre-left politician for more than two decades and himself a former premier, to make a power grab. Mr Zeman took office in January as the first directly elected Czech president, and has since been trying to shift the country away from being a parliamentary democracy towards a more presidential system similar to that of France.

A smoker and a drinker who makes occasionally tipsy public appearances and favours salty language, Mr Zeman has struck a chord with poorer and working class voters, often to the dismay of Prague elites.

“This is still a largely plebeian nation, with the exception of Prague. Zeman is the kind of politician who really appeals to many ordinary Czechs,” says Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and director of New York University in Prague.

This is still a largely plebeian nation, with the exception of Prague. Zeman is the kind of politician who really appeals to many ordinary Czechs

- Jiri Pehe, political scientist

Mr Zeman seized the opportunity offered by Mr Necas’s disgrace to do an end-run around parliamentary parties and appointed his ally, Mr Rusnok, as caretaker prime minister last month. The new government promptly launched a purge of the public administration and in state-controlled companies.

However, after Mr Rusnok’s failure to win a confidence vote, there now seems to be a cross-party agreement to hold early elections.

That still leaves Mr Zeman as the most powerful figure in Czech politics.

Opinion polls give the centre-left Social Democrats a wide lead, and a government formed by that party, possibly supported by the communists and by a new left-wing party founded by Mr Zeman seems the likeliest outcome.

That does not mean an end to political turbulence. Mr Zeman, who has a long memory for political slights, is an old enemy of Bohuslav Sobotka, the current leader of the Social Democrats, the party that Mr Zeman once led. Mr Zeman has carefully said he would choose a “representative” of the eventual winning party to head a new government, avoiding the term “leader”.

Mr Zeman’s rise is part of a wider trend across crisis-stressed central Europe that has seen the collapse of opposition parties in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia and the rise of strong leaders who often skirt accepted democratic principles. Mr Zeman has declared that many parliamentary and constitutional procedures are “idiotic”.

But to some Czechs that approach is just what is needed.

“Necas never had a strong hand, and that’s what we need in this country,” says Vaclav, as his drinking buddy Jan slaps the table in agreement.

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