Political survival dearer than fragile coalition unions

NEITHER Mikuláš Dzurinda nor Pavol Hrušovský has insisted on resuscitating the fragile union of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) before general elections now scheduled for June 17.

NEITHER Mikuláš Dzurinda nor Pavol Hrušovský has insisted on resuscitating the fragile union of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) before general elections now scheduled for June 17.

The ruling coalition, whose demise Hrušovský ensured by quitting it on February 7, had suffered too many wounds since taking office in 2002, and on too many occasions had covered up its hurts for the sake of media appearances.

It's what happens when a conservative mind and a neo-liberal heart (or is it the other way around?) are locked within the same body.

When Pavol Rusko and his neo-liberal New Citizens' Alliance (ANO) abandoned the ruling coalition following Rusko's dismissal as economy minister over corruption suspicions last summer, analysts expected that the bitter struggle between the neo-liberals and conservatives within the coalition would abate. After all, Dzurinda himself used to be vice-chairman of the KDH, and the SDKÚ has kept the "Christian" in its name.

But the treatment the Vatican Objection of Conscience Treaty received proved this assumption wrong.

ANO's implosion left an entire camp of neo-liberal voters without a clear option, ready to be plucked by any party that could find a convincing voice in time.

Zuzana Martináková's Free Forum, originally founded by former Dzurinda ally Ivan Šimko, who then was dumped by his own political child, profited the most from ANO's disintegration. Its support rose from 5 percent in November 2005 to 6.6 percent in February 2006, based on a recent Statistical Office survey.

Martináková, a former journalist whom Dzurinda encouraged to turn to politics, found words that appealed to non-conservative, non-clerical, non-communist and non-nationalist ears.

By his rejection of the Vatican Treaty, Dzurinda also started to muscle in on the action, "saving" the country from a Christian fundamentalist future, to paraphrase the spin-doctors.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Slovak political scene that despite the strength of the neo-liberal camp among Slovak voters, the country has always lacked a strong neo-liberal party to take on the brash and well-organized conservatives. Since the collapse of the one-party system in 1989, various parties have tried to address this neglected flock, but none have succeeded.

Dzurinda's latest move thus seems entirely logical, and suggests that his rejection of the KDH ultimatum was not done in the heat of the moment, but with the cool calculation of a political survivor.

The KDH-SDKÚ union was also destined to collapse of its own accord. Last year, unnerved by the falling popularity of the SDKÚ, Dzurinda called on the KDH to form a pre-election coalition with his party, and was resoundingly snubbed.

The KDH said it preferred to pursue its conservative agenda alone.

In December, with its popularity down to eight percent, the SDKÚ rushed to launch a PR campaign called "Blue Winter" to warm the hearts of potential voters.

Dzurinda also started cleaning up around the house, asking Labour Minister Ľudovít Kaník to resign over suspicions he had misused EU funds.

When you do the math, the Vatican Treaty was just what the doctor ordered for Dzurinda and the KDH, allowing them to end the agony of their crippled ruling coalition, and giving the prime minister a way to turn ANO's disintegration to his own advantage.

For both sides, the treaty had enormous potential to mobilize their electorates, giving both conservatives and non-conservatives, clerical and non-clerical voters, communists and non-communists an issue to dispute on the battlefield.

With the KDH maintaining an iron grip on the conservative and clerical vote, only the non-conservative and non-clerical vote remains up for grabs.

Either way, the collapse of the ruling coalition will harm neither party, and can only widen their core voter groups.

Instead, early elections in June will harm political dwarfs and newborns like Nádej, established by Economy Minister Jirko Malchárek, a former Rusko ally looking for one more ticket to parliament.

The government crisis also put the spotlight on opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) boss Vladimír Mečiar. Mečiar made a pathetic offer to Dzurinda to talk about supporting him, only to be rejected. The prime minister knows that keeping a dying coalition alive until September with Mečiar's help could only harm his party and repel many voters for good.

Despite all the debate over the past few years about cooperation between the SDKÚ and the HZDS without Mečiar, the HZDS boss has shown no signs of passing the party leadership to anyone else, and therefore has left it with little political future.

The furore around early elections has also drowned discussion over the way the ruling coalition won majority support in parliament last September after Rusko and ANO left the ruling coalition. This noise also clearly benefits both the KDH and SDKÚ.

So what about the Slovak voter? Will voters benefit from the ruling coalition crisis or early elections?

For voters it makes little real difference whether they cast their ballots in September or in June. But everyone will probably welcome the prospect of a shorter campaign season than we would have seen if the September election term had remained, just as everyone will be relieved at not having to watch rivals pretend to be friends as they kick each other under the table.

By Beata Balogová

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