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Topolánek mimics Berlusconi rather than answer questions

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It’s symbolic that the affair regarding the vacation of ODS Chairman and former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek took place in Italy. It is as if the episode prefaced the direction Czech democracy is heading.

It’s symbolic that the affair regarding the vacation of ODS Chairman and former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek took place in Italy. It is as if the episode prefaced the direction Czech democracy is heading.

Although the EU is composed of democratic states, large differences exist between the democracies of the west (particularly those in Scandinavia), democracies in central Europe, those of the Benelux countries and the democracies in Southern Europe.

Italian democracy is a category in itself. With its corruption, interlacing of business and politics, slumped political culture, and organized crime seeping into the official sphere, it remains unparalleled, especially among old EU member states.

It seems logical for the Czech democracy to evolve similar to Austria’s – chiefly due to a common historical heritage, culture and the comparable size of the two countries. On the one hand, in Austria there is a tendency to favour cabinet politics and grand purpose-built coalitions that carve up power within the state; on the other, there is a solid tradition of the rule of law (Rechsstaat), which the Germans share.

The emphasis on the rule of law balances out the certain weakness of civic society, and the media prevent the interests of the biggest political parties from slipping into the anarchy that is sometimes visible in Italy.

Unfortunately, Czech politics more and more resembles the Italian version rather than Austrian one. Topolánek’s blatant scorn of the public’s view of his meetings in the Tuscan villa, rented out under strange circumstances – as well as cruises on luxurious yachts with business officials and lobbyists – strongly resembles the conduct of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Even worse is Topolánek’s reluctance to explain in detail how he paid for his vacation, if in fact he even paid for it at all.

At his first press conference upon returning from Italy, Topolánek waved a few pieces of paper – purportedly relevant bills – in front of journalists and assured the public that he and his partner, Lucie Talmanová, could afford to pay for such a vacation themselves. A statement followed in which the former prime minister announced his willingness to explain himself was running short, so he would not again address questions of who paid for his vacation and how.

Under pressure from the media, the ODS published a contract of sorts stating that a mysterious company had rented out the villa in which the former prime minister had stayed. But some in the media immediately noticed that the contract has a number of shortcomings and looks as if it had been signed after the trip.

Getting back to the comparisons, it’s certain that politicians would not get away with something like this even in the somewhat decadent Austrian political culture. In Italy, on the other hand, Berlusconi has withstood worse situations. Quite rightfully, he has always relied on the fact that the ensuing media counterattack would water down the case. He also knows that the nation, with its relatively disengaged society, and where Berlusconi controls the most important press, would either forgive him or forget about the scandal.

In Topolánek’s Tuscany scandal, the former prime minister is attempting to prove that the best defense is a good offense. Berlusconi, in a recent scandal involving a prostitute’s documentation of group sex games at the prime minister’s villa, accused his opponents of spying and conspiring in an organized campaign.

Back in Prague, the Social Democrats took a beating even though Topolánek offered no evidence or explanation why the ČSSD would want to publish photos that also compromised their own former Industry and Trade Minister Milan Urban, who also stayed in Tuscany. Topolánek also turned his anger on the former intelligence service head Karel Randášek, who handed some of the photos over to the daily MF Dnes.

Topolánek’s tactic was a partial success. Commentators, in a custom rooted in the days of communism, started asking whose interest the scandal served. Who took the photos and why is surely an interesting question but one which unfortunately misses the point. The fact is that Topolánek stayed in a villa where he met with prominent businessmen and lobbyists with whom he also sailed on a luxury yacht.

We might, of course, content ourselves with Topolánek’s explanation that these meetings weren’t in any way out of the ordinary. He meets with these and other businessmen in the Czech Republic as well. But the public has the right to know why so many prominent lobbyists and businessmen would go all the way to Italy to meet with Topolánek and, chiefly, to know who paid for all of it. In addition, the people said to have facilitated the rent of the villa, and those in Topolánek’s presence, include men with close relationships to the fugitive Radovan Krejčíř and the criminally prosecuted entrepreneur Tomáš Pitra.

One commentator who fully grasped the “Whom does it serve?” question is Bohumil Doležal. He repeatedly prodded the media to focus on who was behind the purported attempt to discredit Topolánek, because the whole scandal is apparently a pre-election campaign against the ODS.

The attempt to discredit Topolánek is reportedly dangerous because, were the ČSSD to win the upcoming elections, the party would unite with the Communists and impose a “directed” democracy. Nevertheless, Doležal doesn’t bother explaining the roots of his belief in the bleak future that would result from the ČSSD’s victory. And neither do we find out how such a “directed” democracy would function.

The columnist’s logic is simple: If the ČSSD wins, there’s the threat of imposed “directed” democracy, so let’s forgive the chiefs of the ODS for the poor practices that appear rather mafia-like to those citizens less-blind than the commentator obsessed by the dangers of the left.

The trouble is that our not-yet-“directed” democracy more and more resembles the mafia practices of Italian politics. If in the end one side really figures out a way to curb our democracy after the elections, it will unfortunately have an easy time with the public, if only because the current state of Czech government à la Berlusconi appears to be a model of political administration not worth fighting for.

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