Ruling parties show their true colours

PRIME Minister Robert Fico and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) boss Vladimír Mečiar have sharpened their tongues and clashed in a verbal fight through the media over suspicious land transfers that made a firm reportedly close to the HZDS richer.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) boss Vladimír Mečiar have sharpened their tongues and clashed in a verbal fight through the media over suspicious land transfers that made a firm reportedly close to the HZDS richer.

After the media reported extensively on the murky deals - involving plots of land covering more than one million square metres - Fico said he would not tolerate this kind of shady dealing in his coalition. He demanded the head of Branislav Bríza, deputy director of the National Land Fund, who cultivated the deal and signed the contract on the land transfer.

Mečiar said no. He promptly hit back singing his usual song: it was a plot to discredit the HZDS.

The media called it a ruling coalition crisis. Political scientists said it was a power fight typical for populist leaders like Fico and Mečiar to cover up cronyism. And the third coalition leader, Ján Slota, said it was a plot of the opposition, the Hungarian Coalition Party and some external enemies.

It seems that each ruling coalition leader remained loyal to his true nature. Fico made bold statements about how there is no room for corrupt behavior in his ruling coalition, believing this might be music to his voters' ears. Mečiar denied everything and said no HZDS nominee should be harmed in this fight. Slota smelled the presence of Hungarians and some foreign forces behind the crisis.

It seems likely the show will go on with the very same cast, perhaps with a slight change in the supporting roles as Bríza is written out of the script. He said he would resign, assuring the public that he would do so by his own will and that there was no pressure from his boss, Mečiar.

Actually, many people were waiting to see when this would happen: when the fake politeness and artificial alliance between Fico and Mečiar would break. The strong words that left their mouths last week certainly sounded more sincere than Mečiar bringing a small pig to Fico as a New Year's gift.

Political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov said the relationship between Fico and Mečiar has been antagonistic from the very beginning. Some even talk about personal antipathy.

"The truth, however, is that the relationship between them is not good," Mesežnikov said.

But the truth is also that the two are bound together by their thirst for power, and it is very unlikely that either of them would risk the coalition that bought Fico's long-desired prime ministerial seat and Mečiar's return to power. This ruling coalition temporarily saved Mečiar from political oblivion, and it bought access for both.

Despite the fact that relations between Mečiar and Fico have never been good, the two have a lot in common. Both Smer and the HZDS were built around their leaders, both of whom keep assuring their sympathisers that they know what is best for the nation.

Both have had problems finding a stable place within international organisations. Both manufactured a union with Ján Slota, and neither of them have been able to control Slota's slippery tongue when it comes to his comments about Hungarians, Roma and other minorities.

With a toothless and disjointed opposition, the prospect of early elections cannot possibly sound as scary to these two as it sounded to Mikuláš Dzurinda in the middle of his coalition crisis.

But now if one of them is going to bleed in a lasting coalition crisis, it would be Mečiar and his HZDS.

Certainly Fico has absorbed some of Mečiar's traditional voters, who were most hurt by the reforms of the Dzurinda government.

So Mečiar can be expected to hold tight to the advantages of being a ruling party - including the financial ones.

"This incident has proved that when there are chances to strengthen their power, but also their purses, the parties simply use them," Mesežnikov said.

This is nothing new. The media have been reporting about these financial interests from the very beginning. Mesežnikov pointed to a recent Transparency International report that confirms that cronyism remains a problem.

Fico knows that coalition partners are happy when they get at least some crumbs from the ruling table, even if they cannot actually get everything they want. But he decided that the land transfer was not just a crumb, so Mečiar simply could not have it.

But he will certainly get something else and he will get it soon, so that the crisis is ironed out and Fico can focus on his perceived enemies, such as private health insurers, pension fund management companies and retail chains.

By Beata Balogová

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