PRAGUE (Reuters) - It was a moment of high drama: the Czech prime minister stood up in parliament to try to salvage a political career torpedoed by the arrest of an aide, and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, sitting next to him, had dozed off.
Schwarzenberg's habit of napping has, instead of being a liability, made him popular among Czechs fed up with their political class and its endemic corruption, and desperate for someone who breaks the mould.
A 75-year-old aristocrat, Schwarzenberg printed posters for the last parliamentary election campaign which deftly brought together his penchant for snoozing, his reputation as an outsider, and the distaste many Czechs feel for politicians.
The slogan read: "When they talk rubbish, I sleep."
The European Union member has embraced free speech and market reforms since emerging from Communist rule in 1989 but politics has been dominated by scandals and Czechs are tired of the fiscal austerity that has helped deepen a recession.
Voters' disillusionment with the political establishment reached new lows last week when prosecutors charged eight people, including an aide to Prime Minister Petr Necas, with bribery and unauthorized spying.
Necas resigned on Sunday, but his departure is unlikely to herald a fresh start. His own party is expected to nominate the next prime minister from among its ranks, and the leading candidates are veteran political insiders.
"The public has grown increasingly disenchanted with the political class," said Jiri Pehe, a former advisor to Vaclav Havel, the democratic activist jailed under Communism who later became Czech president. "People tend to believe that all politicians are corrupt."
Against this back-drop, Schwarzenberg feels like a breath of fresh air.
He speaks his mind, he takes a breezy approach to the rules of politics, and because of his centuries-old family wealth, many Czechs believe Schwarzenberg, a prince, is above corruption.
After early years in a Czech chateau, his family emigrated to Austria to escape Communist rule. A 16th-century palace next to Prague castle has his family name carved into the stonework above the entrance.
He is the most trusted party politician, with 44 percent support, according to a poll in April by CVVM, a Czech public opinion research center.
"He has a completely different view of things. Whenever I hear him speak I always feel better and that this country is not such a bad place to be," said Filip Hanak, 30, the owner of a pub in the Czech capital.
"I don't know whether it's his archaic Czech or the way he speaks about things, it feels as if he were above it all and the dreadful scandals seem digestible when he speaks about them."
Schwarzenberg's critics say he is a dilettante unsuited to governing. Others say that behind the outsider's image, he too is part of the system. They point to people such as Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, a veteran political insider, who is number two in Schwarzenberg's TOP09 party.
His irreverent style was on display during last week's political crisis. At a briefing to announce whether his party would back Necas, Schwarzenberg wore a punk-style T-shirt paying homage to Ivan "Magor" Jirous, an underground poet.
Asked in a newspaper interview about the collapse of the coalition government, of which his party is a member, he said he had mixed feelings. "It's like watching as your mother-in-law goes over the cliff in your new Mercedes," he said.
He denied having been asleep when the prime minister spoke in parliament last Friday. Nevertheless, his sleeping has become a calling card. A Facebook page dedicated to him gives him the nick-name "Schlafenberg": - a play on the German word for sleep.
When newly-elected President Milos Zeman gave his inaugural speech in parliament in March, the foreign minister sat in his usual position on the dais. His eyes were closed, and his head dropped lower and lower, before he suddenly jerked awake.
Schwarzenberg had come a close second to Zeman in a presidential election this year.
It is unlikely Schwarzenberg alone can fix the Czech malaise. Two decades after the "Velvet Revolution" that made their country a beacon of liberty, Czechs feel let down by the politicians who took over from the Communist rulers.
An opinion poll in March showed that 45 percent of respondents believe the majority of politicians are corrupt. Thirty percent think all of them are corrupt.
More sleaze is likely to emerge. The prosecutors' investigation which unseated the prime minister is still running, and looking into the web of corrupt ties between some politicians and wealthy businessmen.
"Sometimes I feel ashamed of the low level of this society," said Ivana Toftova, a 35-year-old on maternity leave from her job. "I fear that it will disgust him (Schwarzenberg) and he will leave and there will be nobody like him left in politics."
(Additional reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Anna Willard)
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