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EDITORIAL

Non-confidence motions a theatre of the absurd?

THERE was really nothing unusual about the opposition's recent attempt in parliament to have Labour Minister Viera Tomanová sacked for what the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Christian Democratic Party (KDH) called "moral and professional failure".
There was really nothing surprising about the fact that this completely legitimate attempt to use a democratic tool to impeach a cabinet minister has turned into a 17-hour blame game between the ruling coalition and the opposition, and that Tomanová will continue heading up her ministry.

THERE was really nothing unusual about the opposition's recent attempt in parliament to have Labour Minister Viera Tomanová sacked for what the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) and the Christian Democratic Party (KDH) called "moral and professional failure".

There was really nothing surprising about the fact that this completely legitimate attempt to use a democratic tool to impeach a cabinet minister has turned into a 17-hour blame game between the ruling coalition and the opposition, and that Tomanová will continue heading up her ministry.

Over the past decade or so, many parliamentary non-confidence motions have transformed into a theatre of the absurd. This country has had ministers who have survived three or even more non-confidence motions, while interior ministers are the ones with the most experience when it comes to weathering a parliamentary inquisition.

Vladimír Mečiar's notorious Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči turned this parliamentary procedure into an absolute farce in 1997 when he showed up for the session with a book called Assholes No More and gave it to his most fervent critic, Christian-Democrat Ján Čarnogurský, whispering to him, "We just shouldn't take everything so seriously".

The former opposition used the no-confidence motion repeatedly during the reign of Mečiar and his retinue to draw public attention to the incompetence of some of the ministers, even though each attempt was stillborn and never managed to sack a single minister.

Some MPs of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) have perfected their ability to prattle on for minutes, repeating things that previous speakers already disgorged.

After losing power in 1998, HZDS MPs developed a strategy of initiating non-confidence motions against Mikuláš Dzurinda's ministers with enviable regularity and discipline. The parliamentary disciplinary tool has become an instrument of obstructing the work of the legislature with endless accusations, turning parliamentary sessions into rhetoric training grounds. Only a very few of Dzurinda's ministers did not experience attempts to have them removed, even though these attempts consumed substantial amounts of the MPs' working hours, which taxpayers paid for.

These debates were saturated with endless comments and petty quarrels. Many of the MPs dragged out long-forgotten disputes from the past, such as who supported creating an independent Slovak state and who was against it when the split of the Czechoslovak federation was being discussed.

These non-confidence motions gave birth to chronic and notorious debaters such as the HZDS' Ján Cuper, Augustín Marián Húska and Dušan Slobodník, who, whenever there was a minister to recall, made sure to offer the largest number of comments possible, often putting their colleagues to sleep in the process.

This brief history of non-confidence motions probably explains why journalists and even the MPs themselves can no longer take these simulations of scrutiny seriously, and also why the public has probably grown tired of these debates except in cases where there's a real chance a minister will be recalled.

This time, however, the reason to meet over Tomanová was serious enough. Political analysts suggested that Tomanová should have resigned on her own, right after the media broke the story about her ministry granting Tomanová's previous employer, the non-governmental organisation Privilégium, a subsidy worth Sk2 million based on a misleading application.

Prime Minister Robert Fico has defended his labour minister and has launched a large-scale attack against the media, using an absurd gambit: on the day when the parliament was supposed to debate Tomanová's fate, he summoned a special cabinet session to discuss the media.

Special cabinet sessions are usually summoned when there is a state of emergency or some crucial legislation has to be passed urgently. The act of summoning the country's ministers just because the prime minister feels that the media has crossed the line when reporting about Tomanová is somehow worrisome. It is almost the same waste of ministers' time and taxpayers' money as the absurd non-confidence motions from the past were.

Some Slovak media speculated that Fico might recall Tomanová after things cool down due to her health problems, because the prime minister has already said that he worries about her health condition, which has gotten worse thanks to intense media harassment. This scenario is very unlikely since Fico no longer acts according to logic and common sense when it comes to his labour minister. And yet, for him, it is no longer just a debate over Tomanová's performance, but a very personal thing, his personal war being waged against the media for Tomanová and for everything she represents.

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