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A Prime Minister in Trouble?

From the outset, Gross has stated that he believes he is the victim of a deliberate campaign to topple him. Initially, he described it as a “media campaign” but on 13 February he added some detail by saying that “a powerbrokering economic group” had instigated the investigations. But so far, the prime minister has failed to explain why he knew so little about what was presumably the largest purchase of his life, or the numerous inaccuracies or questions that have emerged over the past month.

Gross has promised to ask the Supreme Security Office to investigate his finances and those of his wife. However, doubts are being raised on two counts. Gross made a similar promise in 1999. An audit was never undertaken. Gross says he decided to renege on his promise because, as interior minister, he would have been investigated by people who were under his control. He has not explained why he is not using the same argument now, as prime minister.

Secondly, the audit process could take a very long time. Former Foreign Minister Jan Kavan ordered an audit when he became president of the United Nation’s General Assembly. By the time it was completed his year at the UN was over. Some therefore see Gross’ decision as an attempt to bury the scandal. That possibility appears all the greater because the results would not necessarily be made public.

This is not the first time that Gross’ efforts to find accommodation have raised questions. In 1995, he was allocated a flat by Prague City Council earlier than his position on the waiting list warranted.

So far, it is unclear quite what effect the scandal will have. At present, the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) seems almost uniformly behind party leader Gross, with even the usually sober finance minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, joining the CSSD chorus that Gross is a victim of a “witch-hunt.” The CSSD’s counterattack took its sharpest and potentially most lasting form when the culture minister, Pavel Dostal, said the media laws should be reviewed. “I think we can agree that, regardless of who is in power, it should never be allowed to happen again that the media can without punishment fabricate stories, speculate, and manipulate facts,” he told parliament.

Gross says he will take both Mlada fronta Dnes and Respekt to court, but there has been little immediate sign of cross-party support for Dostal’s call for media restrictions.

The effect on the popularity of the CSSD will become clear only in the coming weeks since the latest poll was taken in the first week of the scandal. The poll indicates that Gross’ Social Democrats have clawed back a few points since a dismal performance in local and senate elections in November. But the party's 14.5 percent is paltry compared with the 30.2 percent that it won in general elections in 2002.

What seems clear already, though, is that Gross’ credibility has suffered significantly. An apparently independent poll commissioned by Mlada fronta Dnes found that 80 percent of Czechs believe the prime minister has lied about his financial affairs.

These two scandals follow revelations about several previously secret private investigative teams that Gross set up in a long stint as interior minister, and the communist past of some of his senior appointees in the security services.

Doubts about Gross’ credibility have been reinforced by comments by President Vaclav Klaus on 12 February. “We all know that the flower that requires most nurturing is credibility, the credibility of politicians and politics,” he told radio listeners. “And that [credibility] suffers immeasurably from the unbelievable escapades that we find to our surprise today and every day in our newspapers.” Since he became president, Klaus, the country’s prime minister for most of the 1990s, appears to have expanded his popularity beyond supporters of the party he once led, the ODS, and he now enjoys good ratings with a large majority of Czechs.

So far, it looks unlikely that parliament will push Gross for full disclosure of his financial affairs. The governing coalition has blocked an attempt to set up a parliamentary commission.

Whether these scandals will increase political transparency could soon become clearer. A new bill on conflicts of interest is due to go before parliament in a matter of weeks. While the question marks over Gross’ behavior do not so far relate to a conflict of interests, the vote will be seen by commentators as an indication of how willing Czech politicians are to ask each other hard questions about their finances.

(TOL 21.ii.05)

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