Government vs. Corruption: a Draw
Reconstruction of the State presents a detailed summary of two years of Bohuslav Sobotka’s government. The Government prefers citizen control to checking on political power, and fails to deliver on its resolve to promote “Reconstruction” measures.
The coalition agreement that gave rise to the incumbent government marks its second anniversary. Checking on the document again, two of the six priorities on page one address the issues of transparency, good governance, elimination of clientelist bonds, and investigation of corruption. Some commentators have even dubbed the government as “Reconstruction”, using the name of the anti-corruption NGOs coalition Reconstruction of the State. Understandably, this topic has been lately obscured by all-European issues and government priorities have taken the back seat. However, nothing can obscure the fact of lingering public distrust in the government. Eight Czechs out of ten perceive corruption as the key problem of the state (STEM, January 2016), while only six percent have noticed an improvement in the past year (CVVM, January 2016).
Even though multimillion-crown wine crates have slipped into oblivion, it is the election campaign rules, conflict of interest, and lack of transparency that keep stoking the flames of civic suspicion. Various forms of business influence on the decisions of political leaders and officials persevere—whether surreptitiously as in the case of the state-owned companies such as ČEZ or Česká pošta, or quite visibly in the form of presence of former Agrofert Group employees on the political stage.
So, how well is the Government coping with its fine resolutions?
Citizen control comes first
The score is split for the cabinet, for the time being. On the one hand, action was finally taken on legislation in the areas often neglected in the past ten or fifteen years. It is no small treat, since these are system changes which are far more important than any individuals currently holding office. But on the other hand, change is slow to come and most ideas might not be brought to fruition by the end of the election term.
Thus far, the incumbent government has passed three of eight “Reconstruction” bills. Two bills were successfully promoted in accordance with the recommendations filed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One of them was the original parliamentary motion in favour of “rider-free” Rules of Procedure of the Chamber of Deputies. The second is the slightly compromise coalition version of the bill on disclosure of contracts concluded by the State and the self-governing administrative bodies, which would not have passed without opposition votes and unusually active public involvement. However, this “unveiling of state” will be fully applicable as late as in July 2017. The third draft—the Civil Service Act—finally entered into validity after ten years, albeit in a very problematic language agreed by the opposition and the coalition, but criticized by NGOs.
Another bill—on extending the Supreme Audit Office’s powers to municipalities and state-owned enterprises—has been only partially passed and its future in the Senate remains uncertain.
The four other bills are still only in their preparatory stages. The government has presented two of them to the Chamber of Deputies, namely those concerning politicians’ declarations of assets and controlling party finances. The last two remaining bills await government approval, namely measures to improve the supervision of state and municipality-owned enterprises, and strengthening the independence of State Prosecution.
All in all, the general impression is that the Government prefers controlling citizens to regulating political power. Tax laws gained precedence over the transparency of public spending, powers of fiscal offices prevailed over the powers of the Supreme Audit Office, and private declarations of assets over those filed by public figures.
Who’s to blame?
Who shall get the blame for the current situation—that’s what keeps the media and then general public on their feet. Despite analyzing scores of meetings and voting sessions, we really cannot point an accusing finger. Every bill invites political battle along different lines. Often the role is played by active individuals acting on their own. A detailed description was provided for example by our description of the process concerning the bill on the contract register. The common denominator is everybody’s unpreparedness to claim responsibility for many of the bills, which then get passed almost accidentally, through a rather chaotic process aided by several active MPs and NGO enthusiasts instead of parties’ clearly agreeing on a compromise but workable draft.
The Chamber of Deputies received the abovementioned two bills, which were presented to the Government—after a yearlong delay—by the ČSSD-dominated Ministry of the Interior and Legislative Affairs Minister Jiří Dienstbier alongside his deputy Kateřina Valachová (both ČSSD). At the same time, however, the Social Democrats took the most reserved position on the legislative package in the Government. Thus, with the consent of the prime minister, Social Democrat senators and deputies almost staged a funeral for the contract register bill.
The situation in ANO is diametrically opposed. This movement vocally supported the bills, voted for them in the Chamber of Deputies, and several ANO lawmakers have actively negotiated their adoption. At the same time, however, ANO ministers Andrej Babiš and Robert Pelikán have as yet failed to send two “Reconstruction” bills their ministries are responsible for to the lower house of the parliament, and former deputy minister Adriana Krnáčová nearly killed one bill. The Ministry of Finance still does not have even the paragraphed text of the bill on nominations to the supervisory boards of state-owned enterprises.
Unlike the other two coalition parties, KDU-ČSL is not directly responsible for any of the Reconstruction bills, i.e. none of their ministries has been charged with preparation of the bills. After initially objecting to and opposing particular issues, the party leadership seems to have changed their minds and assumed a reserved yet tolerant posture. Their deputies are more inclined to support bills.
That much was said for the Government parties. But most of the battle scenes take place in the Chamber of Deputies, where most bills are pushed forth by a small group of deputies running the gamut of political spectrum. They are mostly from the Mayors strain of TOP 09, from ANO and KDU-ČSL, in addition to several active ČSSD deputies. The bills were supported also by lawmakers from Úsvit and ODS. In the Senate, some activity has been shown by several members elected with the support of the Pirates, Greens and KDU-ČSL.
Judging by the praise as well as criticism of the deputies, the transparency topics were kept afloat also largely thanks to civil society organizations. In fact, discussions often centre more on the Reconstruction of the State platform rather than the nature of things.
Opponents of the bills can be found in every political party. However, most of them are likely to be from the Communist party and parts of ODS and ČSSD. Having said that, it was the TOP09 party leadership which practically ruined Civil Service Act, or contributed to many of the compromises in the Act on Contract Register.
The nine Reconstruction proposals obviously do not address all the bills that could spur open governance; there are many other measures which have the potential to prevent corruption and increase transparency. However, the Government position towards these bills remains unclear as well. Thus, for example, the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act upholds the introduction of open data in public administration but fails to break the vicious circle of poor law enforcement. The Internal Control Bill, promising better oversight of public money, has yet to be passed, as well as a new Public Procurement Act with introduces both positive and negative changes compared to the current legislation. The criticized Civil Service Act omits the protection of whistleblowers, for which a separate draft is thought to be presented later in the year.
No matter how slow the process of adoption of the Reconstruction bills, this is more than the civil society had expected—but still decidedly less than the Czech Republic needs. If it had not been for active citizens following parliamentary procedures, the situation today might have been a lot less satisfactory. The “Reconstruction bills” are but a bare democratic minimum. The cabinet’s score in this field is strongly reminiscent of a team that keeps the score open thanks to haphazard goals. Players are happy accusing each other but they don’t realize that the audience does not necessarily see the slight foul plays. The second half tends to be faster and shorter, for any government.
Check out an analysis produced by Econlab showing that 2015 was the worst year for public tenders with a single bidder: http://www.econlab.cz/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2016-01-25-single-bids.pdf.