Supernova John

What's behind Věci veřejné, the new kid on the Czech political block?

Despite a wave of speculation about its non-transparent sponsors and suspicious deals, the Czech political party Věci veřejné (VV; "Public Affairs") charms supporters with its openness on a local level and is riding high in national polls. According to a recent SANEP poll, just over 5% of Czech voters plan to support Věci veřejné at the next election, enough to open the door to the lower chamber of parliament. Sociologists question the credibility of SANEP's data but the party has seen rises in popularity elsewhere too. Last Thursday's STEM poll had VV on less than 5% but ahead of the Christian Democrats and the Greens. And only a day later, the respected CVVM agency confirmed this trend, also putting Věci veřejné ahead of the Christian Democrats and the Greens, on 6% -- again a ticket to parliament.

According to political scientitsts, the driving force behind VV's rise is the celebrity status of Radek John. Formerly a succesful writer and post-revolution journalist, the 55-year-old John for many years led the investigative reporters unit at Nova, the country's most popular TV station, establishing himself as a champion of Czech people's interests. Now he's the leader of VV and a very busy politician: his two mobiles ring constantly, of which he comments: "Everybody wants John, the whole republic wants to speak with Mr. John." Mr John is seen as the most trusted leader of a political party by three-quarters of the Czech electorate, according to a January poll carried out by the GfK agency -- more than Karel Schwarzenberg, the popular chairman of TOP 09. And when it comes to "moral credit" and "anti-corruption potential," the former journalist is among the three best-rated politicians.

But John isn't the only face of Věci veřejné. Young, educated women have important roles in the party too, which, in comparison to other Czech parties, is a phenomenon exclusive to VV. One of VV's deputy chairwomen is Karolína Peake, a lawyer and, for four years, a councillor in Prague 1; another member of the party's leadership is Kateřina Klasnová, a theologian by training; and the party member responsible for VV's political programme is Kristýna Kočí, a political science student who holds a diploma from the prestigious Parisian school Sciences Po. None is older than 35.

Yet this combination of Prague intelligentsia and a celebrity journalist requires some caution. While still a reporter, John worked for a company that successfully took part in several public tenders. That enterprise, Ora Print, was founded by highly questionable Prague businessman Roman Janoušek, who's allegedly a good friend of John's. Ora Print used to publish a magazine for VZP, the public health insurance company, and John was responsible for the publication's finances. According to critics, the 700 million crowns VZP paid for the magazine was twice the going rate, notwithstanding any conflict of interest on Radek John's part.

"I was just supervising the magazine's finances, that's all," says John. "I liked the subject of health because my father is a doctor and I wanted to help people. I didn't get involved with anything else there."

Another point of contention involving Věci veřejné is Vít Bárta, the founder and boss of ABL, one of the country's biggest security agencies, which has a turnover of more than a billion crowns. Bárta's girlfriend is VV Deputy Chairwoman Kateřina Klasnová, his mother represents the party on Prague 1 district council and another deputy chair, Josef Dobeš, used to be ABL's head of human resources. Today, Bárta is one of the party's four biggest sponsors and, according to many observers, enjoys a significant influence on its workings. "He is indeed very important for us," confirms Deputy Chairwoman Karolína Peake and John adds that Bárta is the man who ensures that "what we decide upon gets done" -- be it the "coaching" of the party leadership, helping to formulate policies or negotiating with potential allies. Last week Bárta announced that he would be VV's manager for the forthcoming elections. Still, Radek John doesn't see any conflict of interest in Bárta's role. "'Businessman' isn't a swear word. He doesn't steal, doesn't manipulate. Why shouldn't he be helping us?" asks John. He sees no difficulty in his party criticizing links between business and politics while having an entrepreneur in the VV upper echelons. "I'm happier to have him rather than somebody who is supported by criminals, which is the case for other parties," says John, and he maintains this line despite Bárta having revealed that his company aims to do more public sector business in Prague.

Incidentally, ABL is one of the main advertisers in Pražan, a magazine published by Věci veřejné. Pražan has been distributed free of charge to every resident of Prague 1 for the last eight years and the party's public recognition owes a lot to the publication. But the connection between Bárta's company and Pražan raises the question of whether the magazine serves as a means by which money can be channeled from ABL to VV. "Nonsense," declares Josef Dobeš, who as well as being one of Věci veřejné's deputy chairmen is also the majority owner of the publishing company that produces Pražan.

Within the party, nobody is too bothered by these links and gray areas. Věci veřejné representatives point to the party's ethical code, under which members must abstain from a vote on public procurement if the company in question had any liaison with the party. They also brandish a fairly reasonable political manifesto -- regulatory healthcare payments, inividual fees at universities, income tax reduction, curbing state expenses, etc.

On the local level in Prague, VV is gaining ground. The party helped oust the mayor of Prague 1 and install a very problematic ODS member in the job instead. It has also attracted interest from senior figures in other parties, such as Petr Skokan, former Liberec Region hejtman (governor), longtime ODS member and fierce opponent of Mirek Topolánek's leadership; and Markéta Reedová, a former SNK-ED councilor in Prague and a well known fighter for transparency.

Still, the new kid remains an unknown quantity. Political scientists appreciate the openness of VV and the fact that its 16,000 sympathizers can directly, via referendum, influence the party's policy. But quite a number of questions remain unanswered and the party still faces the threat of rocketing sky-high in the polls but ending up empty-handed at the ballot box.

This is a shortened, translated version of the original article, Supernova John, which first appeared in Respekt 8/2010.

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