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HEAT OF CONFLICT SURPRISES OBSERVERS EXPECTING ELECTION YEAR CALM

Treaty kiss of death for coalition

OPINION is divided on whether it was the last straw in a rocky relationship, or an opportune issue on which to campaign. But one thing is for sure - it was the draft Objection of Conscience Treaty that Slovakia was to sign with the Vatican that caused the sudden demise of Mikuláš Dzurinda's ruling coalition.

OPINION is divided on whether it was the last straw in a rocky relationship, or an opportune issue on which to campaign. But one thing is for sure - it was the draft Objection of Conscience Treaty that Slovakia was to sign with the Vatican that caused the sudden demise of Mikuláš Dzurinda's ruling coalition.

For a coalition that has weathered many rocky moments over its term in office since October 2002, the treaty may have seemed an unlikely rock to stumble on, but the accusations of political betrayal, lying and blackmail that it led to demonstrated the gravity of the conflict.

So what was it all about, and why did it lead to the fall of the government?


The heart of the matter


The conflict over the document flared up at the beginning of February after Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) refused to submit the draft text to the cabinet, effectively blocking it from being approved.

The treaty had been one of the most cherished programme aims of the SDKÚ's closest partner in the coalition, the Christian Democrats (KDH), whose decision to quit the government over the matter triggered the fall of the coalition.

The SDKÚ justified its stance by accusing Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic, a senior KDH member, of having negotiated the content of the agreement without the knowledge of the SDKÚ-nominated Foreign Minister, Eduard Kukan.

Kukan, whose signature on the draft text of the treaty was a condition for its submission to the cabinet, refused to put his name on it.

Dzurinda argued that only the foreign minister was entitled to negotiate treaties with other states and submit such documents to the cabinet.

"It's ridiculous that anyone but the foreign minister would negotiate an agreement with a foreign state. No one else has such powers," Dzurinda said.

But beneath the question of whose job it was to negotiate the document lay perhaps deeper concerns about what impact its approval would have on Slovak society.

The treaty would have enabled religious people in Slovakia to refuse to perform tasks that offended their beliefs by invoking an "objection of conscience" clause.

This would have entitled gynaecologists to refuse to perform abortions or assisted reproduction procedures, or doctors in general to reject euthanasia, if it ever became legal in Slovakia.

Teachers could have refused to teach subjects or concepts, such as Darwin's Theory of Evolution, that clashed with their religious beliefs.

Bus drivers who observed the Sabbath could have refused to work on Sundays.


Opposition


Even before the gloves came off between the SDKÚ and the KDH, the treaty had drawn some international heat.

A commission of independent legal experts was set up by the European Union to evaluate the draft treaty, and concluded that it might clash with the EU's principles of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.

The experts said the treaty posed the greatest threat in the area of abortions.

With around 70 percent of Slovaks claiming to be Catholic, the commission feared that "the rights of objectors of conscience in the area of reproductive health could make abortions and related advisory services inaccessible to women, especially in rural areas."

NGOs and activists also opposed the treaty. The Slovak Women's Lobby, for instance, sent an open letter to Dzurinda calling for the draft to be rejected because it could "endanger the fulfilment of Slovakia's international commitments".

According to Oľga Pietruchová of the Women's Lobby, the UN Human Rights Commission states that "if a right to objection of conscience is recognized by the law or in practice, no difference should be made between the reasons that lead to the objection of conscience."

In a statement sent to The Slovak Spectator, Pietruchová argued that under EU principles, "the right to objection of conscience at work can only be applied in Catholic Church institutions, where it can be justified as a legitimate requirement".


Ultimatum?


In response to the SDKÚ's claims that Kukan had not been consulted, the conservative KDH argued that the treaty had been included in the government programme from 2002, and that the party was merely interested in seeing the PM keep his promises.

With Dzurinda dragging his feet, the KDH announced on February 4 that it would leave the coalition if the treaty was not submitted to the cabinet at its scheduled February 8 meeting.

But the SDKÚ leader refused to bend, saying the KDH had turned the treaty into a political issue and was applying excessive pressure to the coalition to have it approved.

"Neither ultimatums, pressure nor force can be used to forge agreements," Dzurinda said at a press conference on February 7 after his party had agreed to reject the treaty.

The prime minister also argued that the government programme did not explicitly promise the treaty would be adopted.

In an interview with the TA3 news channel on February 6, he said that the government programme states the ruling parties will "work towards the adoption of... the treaty".

According to the SDKÚ, which has pursued a neo-liberal economic reform policy in this administration, the treaty is also problematic because it involves the Church in secular matters, and divides society between believers and non-believers.

Both the heat of the conflict and the attitudes expressed surprised political observers.

On one hand, analysts were taken aback that the KDH had elected to make such a bold move as leaving the coalition over the Vatican Treaty, especially given the current government's tenuous position.

For nearly two years the government has clung to power with a parliamentary minority after a series of rancorous conflicts.

On the other hand, the SDKÚ has Christian roots as implied in its name. Its rejection of the treaty surprised Church officials who saw the presence of Christian parties in government as a good sign for the treaty's chances.

"I was very surprised indeed that the SDKÚ is against the treaty. All the arguments that I heard [against the treaty] were basically looking for ways to reject it," said Marián Gavenda, the spokesman of the Slovak Conference of Bishops.

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Gavenda said that at the moment the Vatican Treaty is not the only one being negotiated - treaties with other churches registered in Slovakia, such as the Evangelical Church or the Orthodox Church, are also being discussed.

"These treaties are almost identical in terms of content, and yet only the Treaty with the Holy See is criticized," Gavenda said.


Vatican Treaty


SLOVAKIA signed a basic treaty with the Vatican in 2000. This treaty, however, was of a general nature and called for the approval of a series of additional treaties such as one on Church financing, on pastoral service in the armed forces, on religious education at schools, and on objections of conscience.
Slovakia approved the pastoral service treaty first, followed by a document on religious education in schools.

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