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Can Bárta keep Public Affairs in the major league?


If Vít Bárta becomes Public Affairs’ chairman, he’ll realize he needs to democratize the party to ensure it lasts longer than one season

Protikandidátem současného předsedy Věcí veřejných Radka Johna (vpravo) na tuto funkci v květnových volbách může být sám Vít Bárta, faktický vůdce VV. foto: © ČTKČeská pozice

Thumping his fist on the table, last Wednesday party chairman and Minister of Interior Radek John opened a hastily convened meeting of the Public Affairs (VV) parliamentary group. “We need to be f…… united,” he shouted, using an expletive for emphasis. After the debate he released a laconic press release. “The deputies of VV reject any speculation of disunity among the parliamentary party or speculation that VV deputies are defecting to the Civic Democrats (ODS) or TOP 09,” the press release stated. ODS, TOP 09 and VV form the current center-right coalition government.

Speculation that members were defecting was first published by daily Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD). Other media outlets have also picked up on it, such us left-leaning daily Právo, which devotes a lot of attention to the non-right wing VV members. ODS, TOP 09 and VV form the current center-right coalition government.

Rather than mere speculation, this seems to be genuine information leaked from the bowels of VV. Besides, if John’s party were so convinced of its unity there would not be any need for it to voice curt denials or constrain party members in their contacts with journalists.

Losing favor with the voters

It is not very surprising something is happening within VV. The May party leadership election is nearing and Radek John will face a number of opponents, perhaps even Transport Minister Vít Bárta. This in itself is reason enough for VV members to be nervous. Moreover, the populist party has difficulty gauging how it is faring vis-a-vis the general public.

VV emerged from the May 2010 elections with 10.88 percent of the vote and 24 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. But if elections were to be held today the party would, according to poll agency STEM , only manage to retain 11 seats. Thirteen MPs would be losing a very appealing job that had previously almost by miracle fallen into their laps. So we should not be surprised if some of them are rather worried and even inclined to fidget. The opinion poll CVVM conducted in the middle of March may be more considerate toward VV members, but that also shows the party has lost support compared to the election results of May last year.

Less than a party it was rather a business project, and one that panned out extremely well.

As was mentioned before, Vít Bárta, the factual leader of VV, may emerge as one of John’s rival candidates for the post of party chairman. VV was established six years ago to compete in municipal politics in Prague 1 and 5. Only as recently as 2009 — thanks to Bárta, his money and the people he hired — the party became a phenomenon on the main political stage. Less than a party it was rather a business project, and one that panned out extremely well.

At the first attempt VV not only got themselves into Parliament but even managed to become part of the governing coalition, this despite the fact VV members lack a regional backbone organization, not to mention a built-up organizational structure at lower levels. And that is why the party cannot even be expected to function in a different manner than a company.

Peculiar rebellion

Being the party’s owner and boss, Bárta, endowed with a strong, dominant and narcissist personality, leads VV members in as authoritarian fashion. In meetings of the party’s political group in Parliament he has been giving endless Castro-like speeches while allowing others to speak for just one minute. “He sometimes forgets we are not his employees,” VV Parliamentary Deputy Martin Vacek told MfD. Party deputy chairman Jaroslav Škárka expressed a similar view, stating that the “party should function in a different manner.”

The party undoubtedly should, but if it were not for Bárta, Vacek and his 23 colleagues probably would not have been MPs, Škárka would not have been first deputy chairman of VV or John even party chairman, deputy prime minister and minister of the interior while Josef Dobeš and Kamil Jankovský would not have been minister of education and minister of regional development, respectively. Bárta has provided them with fantastic jobs and is bound to expect gratitude in return, not rebellion.

How cute! Whatever their view of Bárta, the rebellion will be off if no new sponsor is found!

But that is exactly what 11 members of VV’s political group in Parliament are allegedly preparing for. They are, however, afraid to confront Bárta face-to-face and are  for the time being only looking for an exit strategy. A proper way to leave VV apparently requires playing for time to assess exactly how many of people will be ready to take this step and to find, apart from their shared opposition to Bárta, also some positive common program, three anonymous sources told MfD.

“And, in addition, we will first need to secure ourselves a new platform as we would have to do without Public Affairs’ main sponsor who happens to be Bárta,” the three anonymous sources said.

How cute! Whatever their view of Bárta, the rebellion will be off if no new sponsor is found! And when it comes to a new platform, unlike how it used to be with Miloš Melčák and Michal Pohanka —for whom the ODS took on the role of new “sponsor” when they defected because otherwise without their two votes Mirek Topolánek’s ODS government would have failed to secure the confidence of the chamber in January 2007 — the situation looks less rosy for potential defectors from VV. Even if there are really 11 of them and all would cross over to the opposition, then the government would still wield a comfortable majority 107 votes in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies.

Playing democracy

There is, however, a a second possibility with the ODS and TOP 09 allying themselves with the rebels. Such a coalition would have 105 votes at its disposal and enable the ODS and TOP 09 to cut themselves off from Bárta – who is currently cooking up God knows what with President Václav Klaus – and also get rid of John, which would make the Ministry of the Interior once again available. This second version is however more or less theoretical. It would require a concerted approach by the ODS and TOP 09, which is quite improbable, considering that during the coalition crisis of December last year involving the police president and, much more visibly, during the current one surrounding the ProMoPro scandal and Alexander Vondra, the ODS has found itself on its own with TOP 09 and Bárta’s VV opposing it in tandem.

A grouping that is merely pretending to be democratic will also have little hope of success into the future.

The rebellion against Bárta within VV does not have much chance of success. It is, on the other hand, also true that a grouping that is merely pretending to be democratic will also have little hope of success into the future. VV’s debacle during the municipal and Senate elections has shown that against parties, that may be imperfect but are at the same time are well-rooted in democratic principles and enjoy broad-based support among the general public, Bárta’s entrepreneurial concept does not stand a chance to repeat its success. It will certainly dawn on Bárta, especially if he becomes chairman, he needs to democratize the party should he want it to last longer in the major league than just this one season.