Parliament takes aim at ministers

SLOVAKIA'S opposition parties are again mustering an attack on cabinet ministers in the Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.
Following several such attempts in the past, the political opposition recently agreed to stage parliamentary non-confidence motions to dislodge two of the total four ministers they have in their sights.

SLOVAKIA'S opposition parties are again mustering an attack on cabinet ministers in the Mikuláš Dzurinda administration.

Following several such attempts in the past, the political opposition recently agreed to stage parliamentary non-confidence motions to dislodge two of the total four ministers they have in their sights.

First in line will be Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, who has been arguably the most criticized minister of the current right wing government's term in office because of his deep reforms to Slovakia's health sector that have forced patients to pay surcharges for medical services.

The next minister to come under fire will be Education Minister Martin Fronc, who has been criticized both for making mistakes and for failing to improve the quality of education in Slovakia.

Under Slovak parliamentary rules, a majority in the 150-seat legislature must support a minister's recall for the motion to pass.

The Smer opposition party, led by Robert Fico, has alleged that rather than improving care and making the health system financially bearable, Zajac's reforms have enriched local capital groups by allowing them to acquire health insurance companies and pharmacies, and to do deals with municipalities to run local hospitals.

Smer submitted its non-confidence motion in Zajac to parliament on January 31, hoping to stage the vote within a week.

Zajac said he does not expect he will lose his job, but admitted that he had recently been called on the carpet by PM Dzurinda over problems in the health sector.

The opposition, and even part of the coalition, has criticized Zajac over a recent round of tenders for licences to operate local ambulance services around Slovakia. Many experienced providers of ambulance services lost out in the tenders to new firms, some of them connected to capital groups such as Penta.

The ruling Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) has also faulted the minister in the past over personnel nominations to the largest health insurer, Všeobecná zdravotná poisťovňa.

The health sector changes remain the least popular of all of the right wing cabinet's wide-ranging reforms in Slovakia, and speculation is growing that the government might jettison its health minister on its own to improve its image ahead of general elections set for September.

The government parties, which have a slim parliamentary majority buttressed by independent MPs, trail the opposition parties in the polls by up to 20 points.

Despite his party's mixed feelings about Zajac, SMK Chairman Béla Bugár said recently they would not join forces with the opposition to ditch the minister, a promise confirmed by other SMK officials.

"It's one thing to have objections to the ministry's work and to the problems with health care reform, but we are a part of the ruling coalition and we have always behaved properly as a coalition partner," Gyula Bárdos, the head of the SMK's parliamentary caucus, told The Slovak Spectator.

"The coalition agreement, which we have always respected, says that no coalition partner is allowed to unite with the opposition against its partners. Although we still have objections to the minister, we will definitely not join the opposition in their efforts [to recall Zajac]."

Smer argues that Zajac bungled the changes in the health care system, and that "the reform did not resolve nor alleviate the deep economic crisis in the health sector."

The opposition party also criticized the minister for often revising his reform laws, adding that "the most glaring example of the minister's untrustworthiness is the growing resistance to the non-transparent and biased selection process for the ambulance service licences".

Meanwhile, the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) submitted a non-confidence motion against Fronc on February 1.

A member of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, Fronc has broad support within the coalition and, like the less popular Zajac, is unlikely to be toppled.

"Even if we wanted to make some changes, we would try to achieve them within the coalition and without any opposition interference," said Bárdos.

"At the moment we are not considering it [cabinet changes]."

Fronc's Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) party stands behind its minister, and has warned its partners to do the same.

"The KDH has always behaved as a proper coalition partner and it expects the same from its other coalition partners," said Pavol Minárik, the head of the KDH's parliamentary caucus.

He said the KDH in turn would also stand behind Zajac.

Although the first assault in the opposition campaign targets only two ministers, more are in the pipeline.

The opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) said it wanted to wait until mid-February to see whether Culture Minister František Tóth would leave his post voluntarily or be fired by Dzurinda. Tóth has clashed with the Bratislava culture community over the future of the new Slovak National Theater building under his ministry's jurisdiction.

If Tóth does not go, the HZDS has said it will try to have him recalled in parliament.

Another possible candidate for dismissal is Transport Minister Pavol Prokopovič, who has been criticized over the privatization sale of Slovakia's largest airports in Bratislava and Košice, as well as for other tenders in his sector.

According to parliamentary procedure, the non-confidence votes in Zajac and Fronc should be held at the latest on February 7 and 8, respectively.

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