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Prague city hall arrests cause Czech government turmoil

PRAGUE — A scandal at Prague city hall prompted the Czech Republic’s education minister to resign on Sunday and is threatening the stability of the country’s coalition government, which came to power on a promise to root out corruption and restore liberal democracy.

The Czech Republic takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council next month.

Petr Hlubuček, who resigned as deputy mayor of Prague, spent the weekend in jail after being detained on Friday evening, one of 11 people linked to the city’s transport company DPP to have been charged with bribery, involvement in organized crime and suspicions of illicit drug use.

Hlubuček is a member of the Mayors and Independents Movement (STAN), the second largest of the five parties forming the national governing coalition. Also arrested was lobbyist Michal Redl, a former associate of fugitive mafia kingpin Radovan Krejčíř, who is in prison in South Africa.

Education Minister and STAN member Petr Gazdík reportedly held several meetings with Redl. He said he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but resigned to avoid damaging the government.

“I do not want to shake the government or the coalition on the threshold of the EU presidency,” he said.

“Petr Gazdík is neither accused nor under investigation. It is therefore an honest solution, which we have not been used to in high politics in recent years,” Prime Minister Petr Fiala wrote on Twitter. He told state news wire CTK that he is awaiting “clarification” from STAN.  

STAN leader and Deputy Prime Minister Vít Rakušan announced the party will bring forward an assembly to vote on its leadership, which was originally planned for the autumn.

Hlubuček said he was resigning to prevent “unjustified political criticism” of STAN by other members of the city council.

The arrests are shaking the coalition government, which was formed in November after promising to restore trust in mainstream politics among a deeply cynical electorate. 

Should STAN implode, Fiala’s hold on power would be threatened. The coalition has 108 seats in the 200-member parliament, but would lose its majority without the 37 deputies from the Pirates Party and STAN.

That would provide an opening for Andrej Babiš, the former prime minister ousted in October’s election due after being accused of fraud. His opposition Ano party has 72 seats.

“The real head of the hydra is Mr. Rakušan, who covers STAN’s organized crime from the position of minister of the interior,” Babiš said. “By leaving Rakušan in government, Mr. Fiala approves of STAN’s mafia and robbery practices.”

The turmoil and the arrests are a reminder of the 1990s and 2000s when the country was mired in corruption scandals.

“It’s reminiscent of the dark old days,” said Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague. “Sadly, it seems a recurrent theme of Czech politics, and is likely to further undermine people’s trust in politics.”

The country’s previous Council presidency in 2009 was undermined when the government of Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek lost a vote of confidence.

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