Opposition on warpath for cabinet scalps

A CONTROVERSIAL privati-zation sale and an open letter of protest from the cultural community have inspired Slovakia's opposition parties to continue their campaign for the dismissal of several members of cabinet.

A CONTROVERSIAL privati-zation sale and an open letter of protest from the cultural community have inspired Slovakia's opposition parties to continue their campaign for the dismissal of several members of cabinet.

Among the ministers targeted by the opposition are Culture Minister František Tóth, Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, Transport Minister Pavol Prokopovič, and Education Minister Martin Fronc.

The challenges come as the Mikuláš Dzurinda administration heads into its last year in office clinging to a shaky parliamentary minority. The opposition leads by 10 to 15 points in the polls ahead of the September 2006 elections, with the most popular party, Smer, having made government corruption its bread-and-butter issue in fierce attacks on the cabinet.

The opposition assault began in the New Year against Tóth, a former member of the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO), which fell to pieces after ANO Chairman Pavol Rusko was fired as economy minister over conflict of interest allegations.

The cultural community in Slovakia launched a petition in January demanding Tóth's head for what it called flaws in his approach to culture.

"In a gesture of good will, the cultural community accepted the nomination of engineer Tóth [the minister has a mechanical engineering degree, ed. note] realizing his lack of expertise, but hoping he would use his proclaimed managerial skills to lead the sector," states the appeal, which was signed by about 150 well-known names in Slovak culture.

"Mr Tóth got a chance but didn't do the job," stated the appeal.

At a January 16 press conference the artists rejected claims that their attempt to oust the minister was politically motivated, and insisted that Tóth was "incompetent".

"The culture sector would be better off without a minister at all, rather than with Tóth in the post," said Anton Popovič, a musician and coordinator of the drive.

According to the artists, the minister "apparently does not understand the meaning of cultural activities or culture as such.

"The activities of his ministry [show] a vulgar understanding of economic liberalism according to which the market determines what culture should look like," states the appeal, apparently referring to the minister's suggestion that the number of visitors to Slovakia's cultural institutions should be among the criteria for how much state money they get.

The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) rushed to support the call, and started collecting MP signatures to force a special session in the house to stage a no-confidence vote in Tóth.

"It's certainly a mistake to think that the value of Michelangelo's work is determined by the number of tickets sold by the museum [housing it]," said HZDS Chairman Vladimír Mečiar on January 11.

The artists called Slovak culture "a guinea pig in the hands of an agile politician" who, because he no longer belongs to a political party, wields executive power without political accountability.

Tóth and the Culture Ministry were not taking the charges lying down, with spokeswoman Martina Pavlíková suggesting the petition owed something to Tóth's former colleagues in ANO, now in opposition and unlikely to be re-elected to parliament.

"The minister fears that political interests are behind this appeal, namely efforts to discredit him from ANO and, it seems, ANO's latest ally, the HZDS," Pavlíková told The Slovak Spectator.

"This could also be a sophisticated payback for František Tóth's position on Pavol Rusko's issues."

Tóth was still a member of ANO when Rusko was torpedoed by the discovery that he owed over Sk100 million (€2.6 million) in IOUs to a former businessman who received contracts from his ministry.

Along with several other ANO members, Tóth urged Rusko to leave his post voluntarily, which Rusko refused to do, leading to his dismissal by cabinet.

Rusko then took the remains of his ANO party into opposition.

Pavlíková said: "Minister Tóth is absolutely not considering stepping down.

"The minister also believes that he has the support of all his partners in the ruling coalition in the event that a no-confidence vote is held in parliament," she said on January 17.

Another minister who might face a no-confidence vote is Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, again a former ANO nominee, who has launched the internationally acclaimed but domestically unpopular reform of Slovakia's crumbling health sector. Many of Zajac's reforms have increased payments by patients for the care and drugs they receive, in an effort to reduce health care costs.

The social-democratic Smer remains determined to get rid of Zajac despite apparently lacking sufficient support in parliament to do so.

For a cabinet minister to be deposed, at least 76 MPs in the 150-member legislature must support the proposal.

However, both the ruling coalition and the opposition lack the 76 votes needed for a majority; power rests with a large group of 24 independent MPs, defectors from both the coalition and opposition camps. Of these only six or seven might support a recall ballot, leaving the opposition still several votes short.

Smer insists that Zajac must be fired and his reforms cancelled - something it promises to do if it gains power after the next parliamentary elections.

Smer is also calling for the head of Transport Minister Prokopovič because of the controversy shrouding the privatization sale of Slovakia's two largest airports in Košice and Bratislava.

Prokopovič recommended the cabinet approve the sale to the TwoOne consortium, which includes Vienna Airport, despite the fact that another tender bidder, the ISAP consortium, claimed to have offered more, and that the tender was rigged.

Smer believes that Prokopovič's choice, in giving Vienna Airport control over its competition in Bratislava, is not in Slovakia's best interests. However, the party has not yet initiated the minister's recall.

The Slovak Communist Party is also proposing the firing of Education Minister Fronc for allegedly approving a grant to an unspecified youth organization that supported fascism. The KSS did not identify the group, but party member Dagmar Bollová said the KSS had other reasons to recall Fronc as well.

The opposition has conceded that there is little likelihood it will find enough support in parliament to oust the ministers.

However, according to the SME daily, that doesn't mean the ministers' posts are safe.

The paper suggested that Dzurinda might sacrifice Zajac, for example, to pacify the public, which opposes the health care reform more passionately than any other carried out by the current right-wing government.

Despite such prognoses, the ruling coalition has said it will not support any opposition attempts to topple government ministers.

"We will certainly not support the recall of any cabinet minister in parliament," said Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, deputy chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Movement, for the TASR news agency.

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